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The people who maintain Colorado's icy roads

The recent snowstorm to hit the Front Range brought snow plows out on both sides of the Continental Divide. Local snow plow driver Matt Welch invited Hattison Rensberry along for a ride.

Splashes of orange and blue flash across the snow in the dark of an early morning.

Matt Welch is at the wheel of a large orange CDOT snow plow — a B-type with a front plow, which can weigh up to 40,000 pounds.

With a recent severe winter storm pummeling Colorado’s eastern foothills and parts of the I-70 corridor, Welch has been asked to work closer than usual to the Continental Divide.

Welch isn’t used to visitors in his plow.

“No, this will be the first third-party or outside CDOT ride-along that I’ve done,” he said.

As we begin the first loop of Welch’s 12-hour shift, he mentions that there are some points of etiquette to keep in mind when driving around snow plows.

“I would definitely say slow down, I mean you have to drive for the conditions. You want to get to where you’re headed, you know and you’re going to get there a lot quicker if you get there without spinning and doing a 180,” he said.

“So my advice is slow down, if you see the plows, the safest spot you can be is right behind them, so give them plenty of room for the snow on the roadway, sand it, deice it, so, enjoy the escort.”

Another plow passes by going eastbound, an A-type with a pull-behind plow. According to Welch, the use of such equipment is specialized to certain conditions and is ideal for clearing both interstate lanes simultaneously.

Normally, Welch runs routes closer to DeBeque Canyon, and he says that Western Colorado’s canyons come with unique challenges for his profession.

Another tricky part of Welch’s job is keeping up with bridges, which are generally inclined to ice long before the rest of the roadway.

Matt Welch has spent over ten years with CDOT in multiple parts of the state. He mentions that the hardest part can be missing holidays and time with family, but that overall it can be gratifying to make the roadways safer for everyone.

A lot of planning goes on behind the scenes when a snowstorm hits the region and as Welch explains there’s a method to the plowing.

“Depending on the roadway, so say like an interstate is going to be a category one category two road. So it's going to have more plows, 24-hour coverage. Usually, a plow will run a 12-hour shift and you'll swap out with a different driver. After 12 (hours), you'll have a day shift (and) night shift, and those plows will be running until the storm breaks, roads clear, and then clean up,” he said.

“So interstate, for example, you're going to have plows running nonstop until the end of the storm. Secondary roads, you're going to have fewer plows, but they will also be running throughout the storm. And then sometimes you have 14-hour roads, which are your less-traveled state highways that you'll only have coverage from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. After that, plows won't be on.”

In the end, this morning on the roads with some of the commuters we saw only a mild amount of snow. Compared to Vail Pass and Colorado’s Foothills, our portion of the winter storm was positively tame.

But Welch offers this advice for driving in winter: “Knowing the roadway, you're going to travel and just be prepared,” he said.

Regardless of the severity of winter conditions, it’s fair to say that the safest place to be on an icy road, is either in a snow plow… or behind one.

Hattison Rensberry has a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design and Drawing, but has worked for newsrooms in various capacities since 2019.
She also provides Editorial Design for the Sopris Sun.