The not-so-sunny South
Early this year, Raleigh, N.C., proved unprepared for a mid-day ice storm that produced downtown gridlock and left grammar school children stranded overnight in their schools. Several years ago, when Lexington, Ky., did not respond well to a paralyzing winter storm, key businesses such as Federal Express and Toyota passed the word to government leaders, “Shape up or we ship out.”
Although Sunbelt cities receive less annual snow and ice than their northern counterparts, residents and businesses can be just as unforgiving if road crews are caught unprepared for occasional winter storms. As a result, many southern cities are investing in snowfighting technology and improving their techniques to keep roads as clear as possible.
Ice is not nice
More often the norm in the South than heavy snowfall, ice storms can be devastating. In 1996 and then again in late 2000, for example, Little Rock, Ark. — which averages less than two inches of frozen precipitation in December — had more than double its usual dose of freezing rain, sleet and snow. Power outages were widespread, and one-third of the city was still without power four days after the storm. “People will give you a half day, even a full day, to get back to normal, but our performance didn’t meet expectations,” says Public Works Manager Ronny Loe. The city’s reaction time was hampered by only having six spreaders — two equipped with plows — and all of its salt and sand in a single location.
Little Rock officials calculated that even a “simple” one-day snowfall that keeps downtown workers from their jobs and jeopardizes manufacturing production costs city businesses $25 million. The city’s annual snowfighting expenses can fluctuate between $22,000 and $213,000 based on the weather, therefore, avoiding a one-day disaster pays dividends for years.
Public works officials launched a public education campaign following the 2000 storm to build support for more funding for winter storm preparation. As a result, Little Rock’s snowfighting team is receiving the top management support it needs. For example, to improve routing efficiency and reduce response time, the city purchased four more spreaders, each equipped with plows. It also has built three satellite salt stockpiles where it pre-positions spreaders and is planning to build a new salt storage facility.
Like Little Rock, Charlotte, N.C., does not get much snow, so it entered the winter of 2002 with a winter maintenance program characterized by benign neglect. The city had not used its snowplows since 1988. “We were lulled to sleep,” says Public Works Director Layton Lamb. “The storms of that winter — a severe ice event in December and then a week-long snow event in February — provided a real wake-up call for us.”
The city had 24 spreaders, but only 16 plows, so it rented motor graders to help clear roads when winter weather hit. Using rental equipment significantly delayed its snowfighting response by about eight hours. At that point, the city had just started using salt brine and had a single mixing unit. The brine was applied only to bridges.
In the last three years, Charlotte has moved into a proactive snowfighting program, using both dry salt and salt brine in its new anti-icing program and adding seven more spreader trucks and mounting plows on 31 vehicles. The city has joined other southern snowfighting professionals who have been adding anti-icing techniques to their winter maintenance arsenals for the past decade. Whereas de-icing removes snow and ice, anti-icing is the technique of applying a chemical (usually sodium chloride as either a solid or liquid salt brine) to prevent the bond.
A generation ago, agencies either told everyone to stay off the roads until the ice melted or used de-icers to remove snow and ice that bonded to road surfaces. However, research conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Strategic Highway Research Program documented that fewer chemicals were needed if they could be applied before the ice bonded with the pavement.
For example, if a storm is expected to start with rain and change into freezing rain, sleet or ice, Charlotte road crews apply a solid anti-icing agent because the rain will activate the salt’s melting action, and it will not be washed away before the frozen precipitation begins. “In our area, we get far more ice storms and freezing rain than heavy snowfall,” Lamb says. “We put down a windrow of salt before the storm and have seen fantastic improvements in service levels.”
If anti-icing is adopted, agencies can save money by making or buying a salt brine-making machine. Depending on volumes, salt brine can cost as little as a nickel a gallon. Charlotte had been using a mixture of salt and sand, which was converted to cleaner, straight salt. The city’s brine-making system cost only $25,000, including the brine-maker and portable plastic tanks mounted in the existing dump trucks.
Because agencies in the South cannot justify buying heavy snow and ice removal equipment like hard-hit northern cities, many cities own or borrow tandem dump trucks that can be fitted inexpensively with plow mounts and hydraulics. Tailgate spreaders can be added for the winter and removed for most of the year, or brine tanks can be substituted. Some agencies have found bargain-priced surplus tanker trucks or trailers. Often out-of-season farm equipment is available for winter rental usually at reasonable prices.
Taking accurate measurements
Before winter storms hit, snowfighting crews should work closely with the city council and/or city manager to establish a plan for clearing roads and level of service (LOS) expectations, says Joe Holt, transportation manager for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TNDOT), who describes his agency’s LOS as “return to bare pavement ASAP.” After each storm and at the end of each winter season, TNDOT polls its crews as well as emergency response agencies (police, fire and EMS), and public transportation providers (buses, taxis and airport operators) for feedback on its road clearance performance. The agency also tracks media stories on the its activities and logs residents’ calls. The feedback allows the TNDOT to evaluate itself and make changes to meet its LOS goals.
Transportation departments must train crews and supervisors to complete tasks, often in extended sleep-deprived operating conditions. A special burden falls on Sunbelt agencies because the winter season is shorter and the events less frequent. That means management has to motivate workers to prepare fully for what may be only a handful of responses each year.
Teaching staff how to document equipment use and how to use communications equipment also is important. Little Rock has produced a “Winter Weather Response Manual” that describes its six snow routes and two bridge routes, and its emergency call-out procedures, lists its approved vendors and contractors, and identifies the locations and access instructions for its remote stockpiles. Little Rock also has operators conduct trial runs. And, as both motivators and competency tests, the city runs annual competitions: an equipment Road-E-O and plow installation event.
A sunny outlook
Sunbelt cities face unique operational snowfighting challenges. They must balance resource demands, keep the government officials and the public informed and involved, set service levels through prioritizing service delivery, establish performance measures for snowfighting effectiveness, plan a snowfighting strategy for special circumstances, select the right equipment for each unique snowfighting mission, and secure training for operators and supervisors in the appropriate techniques and equipment.
While Detroit and Boston have spent a half-century building an impressive snowfighting infrastructure, southern cities can create world-class snowfighting programs by using the latest technology, techniques and part-time equipment. Sunbelt cities can meet or exceed residents’ expectations by planning now for inevitable winter storms.
Richard Hanneman is president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Salt Institute.
Finding training help
Snowfighting training courses are available from Local Technology Assistance Program (LTAP) centers located in every state. LTAP technology transfer programs cover all aspects of transportation operations, but the network of LTAP centers — coordinated by a clearing-house at the Kansas City-based American Public Works Association — can draw on a variety of resources.
The National LTAP Association has a winter maintenance committee whose goal is to improve snowfighter training opportunities. It also has a partnership with the Salt Institute which has free training materials on its Web site, www.saltinstitute.org/snowfighting. Agencies can use those free materials with in-house trainers or arrange LTAP trainers to present the program.
— Richard Hanneman
Getting the message out
Communications with the public create trust and confidence, build patience and extend the grace period to complete snowfighting operations. To extend their benefits, however, public communications should be used throughout the year.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TNDOT), for example, uses its Web site to explain its snow and ice removal policies, offer tips for safe winter driving and provide links to other sources for more information. The Web site includes the strategies implemented for each storm, including plowing/spreading routes, and the priority for bridges and culverts, major thoroughfares and hospital entrances.
Inter-agency communications are important, too. TNDOT uses Reverse 911 and radios to coordinate operations and has established a police command center to manage each winter event. Within the agency, an intranet provides updated maps of road conditions. DOT regional supervisors also have established their own networks with local officials to share road weather reports.
— Richard Hanneman