May 8, 2013 8:50 AM by Angela Douglas - MTN News
RED LODGE - Plowing is well underway on Montana's highest highway.
"It's unique as far as roadways in Montana," Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley pointed out. "The terrain is difficult to work in, so it takes specialized equipment, crews that are expert in what they do, and usually a long time to do this work."
That crew consists of four to five men, each manning a machine on a typical day. This year, thanks to some late season snow, plowing of the Beartooth Pass Highway got off to a slow start - but that tune has since changed.
"We've run into a lot of hard, crusty snow on top," explained MDT Field Maintenance Supervisor Steve Reed. "Once we broke through that and got into the sugar, things started going pretty quick. We should have two lanes wide to the state line by Thursday."
Plowing of the Beartooth Pass just recently hit the halfway point as crews work to make sure the road is open for Memorial Day Weekend travel, but there is less snow this year than in past years.
"I would say below average snow levels," Reed predicted. "2011 was the last year we really had a lot of snow up here."
But for these guys, less snow does not mean less work.
"Even though there's snow that isn't here, that there is in normal years, we still have other work to do," Tooley stated. "There's rocks that fall off the mountain and there's patching that needs to be done."
"Cleaning the rocks out of the ditch, redo guard rail, sign repair," Reed added. "It seems like we're always pinched with time at the end to get that kind of thing done, because everything hinges on getting the snow off the road before you can do any of that other work."
Of course, fresh snow at the end of May is nothing unusual for Montana and this crew is used to that.
"It doesn't take a lot of snow and much wind to blow this shut," explained Reed. "So that's the biggest obstacle from now until summer actually gets here. We could fight this for another month pretty easy."
Therefore, the crew will simply take it one day at a time as they work to clear the road of snow and debris for holiday travelers come Memorial Day Weekend.
The portion of the Beartooth Highway beyond the Montana state line is expected to open June 14, once the National Parks Service has finished plowing its portion of the highway.
Yellowstone National Park road plowing was delayed this year due to budget cuts.