Boise Waits For the Big One: ACHD Is Ready for the Next Snowmageddon—Are You? 

If you thought the Treasure Valley was unprepared for the 2016-17 "Snowmageddon," you're not alone. Weeks of sub-freezing temperatures and seemingly endless storms caught many off guard, including the Ada County Highway District Commission, which already had its resources stretched thin. As Tim Nicholson, ACHD deputy director of maintenance, told Boise Weekly, the group needed more equipment. Ironically, it "had more equipment that year than in previous years."

Thankfully, the record-breaking, roof-collapsing, snow-dumping 2016-17 winter season is two years in the rearview mirror, but just because Boiseans aren't anticipating another 30-year storm to drop 30 inches of snowfall doesn't mean preparation for the upcoming season is a waste of time.

For 2018-19 winter operations, Nicholson and ACHD has an increased budget, a 58-unit maintenance fleet, 139 team members on call to assist in 24-hour operations if necessary and the capacity to hold up to 12,000 tons of road salt. It's ready to weather the upcoming storms, but what about everyone else? Those who don't have four-wheel drive or a shovel to spare? Nicholson and the professionals at Les Schwab Tire Center have a few suggestions.

click to enlarge ACHD has piles of road salt ready to combat the winter snow and ice. - COURTESY ACHD
  • Courtesy ACHD
  • ACHD has piles of road salt ready to combat the winter snow and ice.

1. Maintain your vehicle

For most city-dwellers, winter vehicle maintenance calls for new tires. "Right before Thanksgiving is when we see the bulk of people coming in for service or tires," said Joseph Whelan, assistant manager at Les Schwab's State Street location. "And our recommendation depends on your plans for the season. If you're going out of town to Cascade or McCall, you'll want to make sure your tires have optimal traction. And if you're going over mountain passes, you'll need snow tires [those with a snowflake design] or chains."

But what makes snow tires so special? The differences in tread, rubber composition and durability between all-season, all-weather and winter tires make each suited for certain conditions. All-season tires are like sneakers: You can get away with wearing them in the winter, just exercise more caution on snow and ice. Otherwise, a sturdy pair of boots (snow tires) is best. For the average Boise driver, Whelan says snow tires are the way to go if you're willing to invest.

"This time of year, we'll see about 40 percent all-season tires and 30 percent studded snow tires on the road," he said. "The rest are studless snow tires that help with traction. Around town, studless is what we'll recommend most, especially for all-wheel-drive cars."

If a new set of tires isn't in the budget, there are more affordable ways to prep. It might be time to rotate your tires, which should be done every 6,000-8,000 miles. Rotating your tires ensures they'll wear evenly over their lifespan. Most tire shops offer rotations at no extra cost as part of their tire purchase warranty. Les Schwab, Discount Tire and Bruneel Point S, for example, all advertise free rotations with a tire purchase online.

If you can't do that, Whelan said, at least get your car battery and tire pressure checked. Extreme temperatures can affect the life of your battery, so if it's already running low on juice, it might be time for a replacement. And when the temperature falls suddenly, the air inside your tires can contract, causing the pressure to drop.

"Have your pressure checked at least once a month," Whelan recommended, "especially if your car doesn't have a tire pressure alert system, which was only custom for most cars between 2007 and 2010."

These battery and tire pressure checks don't have to cost you anything, either. Les Schwab offers both in its free Pre-Trip Safety Check, and O'Reilly Auto Parts advertises free in-store battery tests.

2. Keep an emergency kit in your trunk

Getting your car stuck in the snow can be a fact of life, especially if you're parked or driving in residential areas where snow piles up and ACHD doesn't typically plow. Snow-savvy Idahoans know getting unstuck is a matter of rocking the car, or revving it back and forth between drive and reverse until your tires can grip the road. If that fails, you'll need some equipment.

There's a good chance you can build a roadside emergency kit with things you already have around the house: a heavy coat, a rain poncho, winter gloves, a flashlight—"things to protect you from the elements," as Whelan put it. But the key here is a spare shovel or something you can use to dig down to the road where your tires can gain traction.

If you want to go all-out, you might also want to include these items in your kit:

  • • Spare flashlight batteries
  • • Jumper cables
  • • Chains
  • • First-aid supplies
  • • A blanket and hand warmers
  • • Bottled water
  • • A Swiss Army knife or another small tool kit
  • • An ice scraper
  • • Sand or cat litter
  • • Non-perishable snacks

The list could go on, and there are plenty of resources and premade kits available. Les Schwab carries roadside emergency kits for $45. Chains are sold separately, but unused sets can be returned for a full refund. If all else fails, Whelan and Nicholson recommend calling for a tow or a friend with four-wheel drive.

"If one of our guys finds someone stuck at 2 a.m., unfortunately, they can't touch the car because it's a liability," Nicholson said. "But they can offer that person a phone or a seat in a warm cab while they wait for help."

3. Manage your expectations

Yes, ACHD has what it takes to operate 24 hours, but round-the-clock operations aren't necessary in a typical Treasure Valley winter, so Boiseans should manage their expectations.

"If we get heavy snow at 4 a.m. and it's still snowing at 8 a.m., cleared roads for the morning commute may not happen," Nicholson explained. "If it has stopped snowing at 2 a.m., we'll be in much better shape at 8 a.m. This is when a little patience goes a long way."

As much as ACHD would like to be on all roads at all times, it still has to work on a priority system. Major intersections, overpasses and bridges, and areas around hospitals, fire stations, school and railroad crossings are all among the highest priorities. Low-speed, low-volume residential roads don't make the list. And on downtown roads, "magging," or spreading the anti-icing agent magnesium chloride, is favored over plowing unless plowing is absolutely necessary (as it was in 2016-17).

"[Plowing downtown] creates havoc because there's not a whole lot of room to push the snow," Nicholson said. "In 2017, we had to get it out of the road, but it inconvenienced the restaurant owners and people who have businesses down there. It's a double-edged sword when we do that, so we'll only do it when we have to."

Nicholson assured that at any given time, ACHD has as many workers out on the road as it can, and it works closely with the National Weather Service, as conditions can change from hour to hour.

It's probably fair to say that Boiseans never expect more than a typical Treasure Valley winter: It snows a few inches, the day warms up, the snow melts, repeat. Snowmageddon was the perfect disaster, but not abnormal for other parts of the country. The pending winter may not include another 30-year storm, but the forces at work won't forget that record winter anytime soon.

"What's happening in Kuna is not going to be the same thing that's happening in the foothills, so there's not a one-size-fits-all solution for the county," Nicholson said. "The crews are doing their best. We're using the best technology and the best information we have when we make decisions."

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