Plows, salt, sand and brine: Iowa road crews preparing for Old Man Winter

By Mitchell Schmidt, The Gazette


CEDAR RAPIDS ? While some Eastern Iowans may not be ready for the transition to winter as temperatures begin to drop, those who maintain state and local roads are getting prepared.

?In our world, Oct. 15 is really the first official day of winter,? said Craig Bargfrede, winter operations administrator with the Iowa Department of Transportation?s Office of Maintenance. ?You just never know when we?re going to start seeing winter weather, when we?re going to start to see temperatures dip below the freezing category ... we have to be prepared.?

Bargfrede said it?s always difficult to forecast winter weather, but said this coming season looks to be closer to average in regard to temperature and precipitation statewide.

Last winter saw average snowfall across the upper third of the state, while the lower two-thirds of Iowa witnessed a below average snowfall. That means some state and local departments likely enter this winter with a stockpile of sand, salt and brine, Bargfrede said. The state uses an average 121,450 tons of salt and 21 million gallons of brine each year on Iowa?s roughly 9,400 miles of highway and interstate.

The state also hires around 600 seasonal employees to help with snow removal operations.

To prepare equipment for winter, trucks used largely for construction purposes in the summer switch to snow operations.

In Cedar Rapids, that transition takes place in mid-November, but Mike Duffy, Cedar Rapids street operations manager, said early snow is always a possibility so crews need to be prepared.

?Certainly if it was to snow tomorrow we easily would be able to field trucks to move the snow,? Duffy said. ?Most of the trucks just sort of snap into their snowplows so to say, so it?s like putting a bow tie on.?

All told, Cedar Rapids has more than 90 pieces of equipment for snow removal and uses about 9,000 tons of salt, 6,000 tons of sand and 16,000 gallons of liquid material in an average winter.

?Our approach has always been to just plan for the worst. If it doesn?t end up being as bad, then we?re on the conservative end of things,? Duffy said.

In Iowa City, fall operations remain the top priority as leaf clearing crews plan to continue working until the city?s annual shift on Thanksgiving weekend from vacuum attachments to snow plows, said John Sobaski, interim streets superintendent with Iowa City?s streets and traffic engineering department.

Sobaski said there?s always the chance early snowfall forces that transition sooner ? Iowa City saw about 5 inches of snow before Thanksgiving last year.

?The forecast takes precedence,? he said.

One way or another, the city?s 13 trucks and other equipment ? along with 3,000 tons of salt ? will be prepared for winter weather when it arrives, Sobaski said.

?We?re good to go,? he said.

While crews prepare to take to the roads at the first sign of snowfall, DOT?s Bargfrede said drivers should be prepared to see ? and provide room for ? plow trucks.

This winter marks the final year in a three-year pilot program launched by the state that adds blue and white flashing lights to a selection of the state?s fleet of trucks.

While the majority of the trucks fitted with blue and white lights are located in central Iowa, there are some in eastern counties as well.

The blue and white lights are paired with the trucks? existing amber lights, creating an alternating pattern, Bargfrede said.

?What we?ve seen is that little combination really distinguishes our trucks out there. People recognize it is a snow plow truck and we?ve noticed a pretty significant reduction in crashes in the last two years,? he said.

According to DOT data, trucks equipped only with amber lights in the spans of October 2013 to April 2014 and October 2014 to April 2015 experienced 15 and 14 rear-end and sideswipe crashes, respectively.

With the addition of blue and white lights during the spans of October 2015 to April 2016 and October 2016 to April 2017, the number of such collisions dropped to six and four incidents, respectively.

Bargfrede said the blue and white lights increase safety for the public and snowplow operators while decreasing the repair costs for trucks. Replacing one spreader costs between $6,000 and $10,000 while the cost of adding blue and white lights is about $500 per truck.

Bargfrede said the department hopes to present the data to Iowa legislators in the upcoming session, with hopes of possibly expanding the practice to the department?s entire fleet of 902 plow trucks. About 600 trucks are not currently equipped with the blue and white light package.

?At that point in time will be the determination if we?re going to continue for another year of if we?re going to be able to go permanently with that lighting package,? he said.