The superintendent of the Missoula Street Division plans to increase the night crew this year to plow the city's main arterials before morning traffic picks up, freeing the day shift to reach residential streets sooner than in past years.

Like potholes, plowing snow has played a small but surprising role in this year's municipal elections, though Superintendent Brian Hensel said commuter complaints have been around for years.

Aided by extra staff approved in this year's city budget, Hensel said he now has the manpower needed to adjust the plowing schedule.

“Without that additional staff, this would not be coming through,” Hensel said. “Last winter was an exceptionally difficult winter for us in a lot of ways. We had some successes, but we also had some of our deficiencies come to light as part of that.”

In past years, Hensel said, he has staffed a crew of four for the midnight shift and brought in four more at 3:30 a.m. Anymore, he said, traffic picks up at 5 a.m., giving crews little time to clear the city's primary routes.

As approved this week, the new plan calls for a crew of 11 for the midnight shift, which runs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. By then, Hensel said, the primary and secondary routes should be plowed.

“This whole plan is contingent on when the snowfall hits, how long it lasts and how much we get,” he said. “My hope is that this will help us take advantage when traffic is at its lowest volumes. My guys can get a lot done when there's not a lot of traffic in the way.”

Hensel also plans to assign a foreman to the midnight shift to improve the transition between night and morning crews. The day shift will also have 11 crew members working from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“My hope is, by the time the day shift is rolling, the (primary and secondary routes) are done and they can start working on Priority 3 and residential areas,” Hensel said. “I'd like to get the residential areas done in three days after the onset of a snowstorm.”

The swing shift will remain the same and tackle any residual needs, Hensel said. At the request of several City Council members, crews will also work to clear bike lanes when possible.

“If we continue to have these La Nina winters, you're probably going to need more (personnel and equipment) in the coming years,” said Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong. “If they could clear just a little bit of the bike lanes, it would make the cyclists really happy.”