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Community
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For plow operators, keeping Chanhassen streets safe is serious business

Whether a light dusting or a full-on blizzard, city employees behind Chanhassen’s snow plowing operation are hard at work to ensure safe rides.

Charlie Burke, Chanhassen public works operation manager, is tasked with making sure trucks are operational; there is enough salt on hand; and that all routes are designated. The city of Chanhassen has 14 snow plow routes, 12 snow plow trucks and an operator assigned for each route.

Every storm is different and depends on the volume of the storm and what will come afterward, Burke said. It’s about looking at the whole storm in the big picture, he added.

Over the years, in light of new technology, chemicals and city relationships, Chanhassen has changed what products it puts on its roads. The city works closely with watershed districts, and all snow plow operators have gone through salt training.

The plow trucks are equipped with new technology that informs operators how much salt they are using and where it’s being used. The trucks also have road temperature gauges to determine how much and what kind of product they should be putting on the road.

Every season, the trucks are calibrated to ensure accuracy, Burke said.

What plow operators are trying to do is “use the right tools, right equipment, right materials at the right time,” Burke said. “We’re trying to be the best stewards to the environment as well by using the right chemicals.”

SPACE TO OPERATE

One of the challenges of snow plowing that Burke points to is people not giving plows enough room to operate. The trucks are big and they slip and slide just like a normal vehicle, he said. It is important to give plows enough room to work. According to MnDOT, drivers should stay at least 10 car lengths behind a plow.

Another challenge for plows is residential streets where people park on the side of the road and put obstacles, such as garbage cans or basketball hoops, in the street. According to Burke, it’s ultimately about teamwork.

“They’re relying on us; we’re relying on them to help us out so we can do it in a safe manner,” Burke said.

According to Burke, everyone in the department takes pride in their work. The plow operators work hard and take enjoyment out of making the road safe for people to get to their destinations.

Ryan Lannon, the city’s street maintenance foreman echoed Burke’s sentiments. The highlight of his job is providing safe roadways for people to commute, he said. He thinks of his wife and child commuting to daycare and work in the morning.

When a storm is coming, Lannon is responsible for contacting the route operators. He also has two routes of his own. The number of plow operators that work on each storm differs. The city will pull people from different areas such as from streets, mechanics and utilities departments. For big storms, they over-prepare with about 13 or 14 snow plow operators.

When people wake up in the morning, they might see 4-5 inches of snow on the road and grow concerned, Lannon said. Plow operators start out by opening main lines (such as 78th Street) and making them passable, which is why they can’t immediately make it to residential neighborhoods. Lannon asks the community to be patient, plow operators are doing their best, he added.

FORECASTS

Forecasting weather is one of the challenges that Lannon noted. When winter storms come out of nowhere, snow plow operators are working hard to get the trucks ready to go. It takes roughly half a day to get trucks prepped and other half a day to get them ready to go again afterward, he said.

“We’re human and we’re trying to do our best,” Lannon said. “Weather is very unpredictable, so you know, sometimes we might be behind the ball.”

Burke encourages Chanhassen residents to reach out to the city if they have any questions or concerns about snow plow operations. Utilizing the city’s reporting tool SeeClickFix, is one way for community members to report issues.

“We’re always here to help out and do that … to better improve our operations,” Burke said.


Business
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CEO of SouthWest Transit to retire
Lydia Christianson / Photo by Lydia Christianson 

Len Simich, CEO of SouthWest Transit, has led the company since 1997. He is set to retire early this year.

Len Simich, who has led the SouthWest Transit since 1997, plans to leave the public transportation agency early this year.

The agency, founded in 1986 by the cities of Chaska, Chanhassen, and Eden Prairie, provides bus service throughout the region.

Throughout Simich’s leadership, ridership grew by 400%; four transit stations were constructed; and the ride-requester service SouthWest Prime was launched, according to SouthWest Transit.

SouthWest Transit is currently searching for a replacement. Once a new CEO is found, Simich plans to take a few months to travel. However, if anything comes up at the agency, he said he’s only a phone call away.

“I’m not going to walk away from it and just leave them,” Simich said. “If they need me, I’ll be there.”

When SouthWest Transit originally approached him about the position in the 1990s, he told officials he would join the company, but wouldn’t guarantee anything longer than five years.

“It was a good place to come to. A lot of growth, a lot of opportunity,” he said.

Now, Simich wants to find part-time work, most likely as a consultant. No matter what, he thinks he’ll be able to keep busy. Simich isn’t quite at that retirement age where he’s ready to go fade off into the sunset, he said. He figures he has about four to five years until he is ready to fully retire.

LOT OF HATS

For now, Simich will continue working on everything from operational issues to construction to budgeting to setting SouthWest Transit’s legislative platform.

“It’s a lot of different things at different times of the year,” Simich said. “It’s one of the things that made the job fun because you have a lot of different hats you wear. We’re a small agency, so nobody here has really one job.”

Over his time at the company, Simich learned about himself when challenges arose, such as dealing with the pandemic, layoffs and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Simich said he didn’t do it alone. He had a good team of people that could rely on each other, he added.

“This place has been my home for well over 25 years and I owe them a lot,” Simich said.

Lydia Christianson / Photo by Lydia Christianson 

SouthWest Transit is currently looking for someone to take over Simich’s role as CEO. He plans to retire between January and May of this year. After he retires from SouthWest, he will look for part-time work, possibly as a consultant.

COVID

The past couple years have been challenging for SouthWest Transit and the transit industry has a whole.

Since the emergence of COVID-19, SouthWest Transit’s commuter express ridership has been down about 75%. The reason being that downtown Minneapolis, the company’s bread and butter, hasn’t come back to what it was pre-pandemic, Simich said.

Declining ridership hasn’t stopped SouthWest Transit from making improvements to their buses. The company has added air purification systems, plexiglass dividers and buses are rotated after each shift so they can be deep cleaned, Simich said.

“We’re doing everything we can do to make that as safe as possible but people are apprehensive still, and I get it,” Simich said.

SouthWest Transit is in close contact with major employers downtown and they’ve already said going back to the office will look different, Simich said, with employees perhaps spending two or three days a week in the office and working remotely the remainder of the time.

EMPLOYEE PERSPECTIVE

Mike Dartt, SouthWest Transit facilities manager, has worked with Simich since he started with the company. The two work closely, as does the entire organization, he said, adding they are all like a big family.

Dartt started at the company as a driver and has worked in a number of different roles before becoming the facilities manager.

According to Dartt, one of Simich’s greatest attributes is his eye for innovation — whether it’s the SouthWest coach buses; the SW Prime system, which operates similar to Uber; or even the company’s color scheme. He also challenges SouthWest Transit employees to be better every day, Dartt said.

Not only has Simich been a good person to work with, he’s also been a good friend, Dartt said.

Working for Simich has “not always been easy, but it’s always been a pleasure to work for him because you know where you stand with him,” Dartt said. “He always has my back as far as I’m concerned.”

Matt Fyten, SouthWest Transit COO, has worked with Simich for almost 12 years.

According to Fyten, he owes everything to Simich when it comes to his career. Simich is willing to give people opportunities to succeed in their roles, he said. Fyten started at the company as an intern and was able to grow within his role.

“He was very clear in terms of his expectations … but he also was very good at ensuring that I had the knowledge and the resources to be successful in my role,” Fyten said. “I think that permeated throughout the entire organization.”

Simich believes that every employee at SouthWest Transit is important to the success of the company, Fyten said. Whether someone is a mechanic, janitor or in administration, he treats everyone with the same amount of respect. He is an approachable, good guy, he added.

According to Fyten, Simich is the reason why SouthWest Transit is what it is today, in regard to the high quality stations, vehicles and customer service. While it takes an entire team to make that happen, it also requires an exceptional level of leadership, he said.

“I can’t say enough in terms of what he’s meant to I think this organization in terms of where he’s brought it and then also what he’s done for the communities as it relates to public transit,” Fyten said. “I just consider myself fortunate for him to have been my mentor throughout my career.”


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