For most of the U.S., the annual ice struggle is imminent

Sept. 4, 2019

This column published as "Here We Go Again" in September 2019 issue

Even with what seems to be a subtle but sure shift in the seasons, winter  is right around the corner. 

I’ll betray myself as old here, but I recall that in my youth, snow could be expected in November, and would even sometimes threaten to put a damper on Halloween, on the parental leniency of roaming the neighborhood until an hour past the “official” end of trick-or-treating. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and this area has always been synonymous with some rough winter weather patterns. Not as rough as, say, Buffalo, New York, but we get our share of hair-freezing wind chills and inordinately voluminous snowfalls.

Lately, however, just within the last five years or so, winter seems to drag its feet in getting out on the climatological stage. It’s 50/50 that Christmas will be white, and at the other end, snow and ice in late April is becoming a very real situation. 

So it would seem odd to start talking about winter maintenance and snowfighting in September, but I suppose you never really know anymore what’s coming when. (The Farmers’ Almanac, in my humble opinion, despite its much-vaunted status as a predictive source, is about as reliable as celebrity gossip these days; the effect of climate change on our global weather situation is simply too volatile for a preprinted guide to be of any dependable use.)

This month, rather than breaking it out as we have done in years past, we have made our annual focus on winter maintenace the core of this issue.

One topic we are covering that we have not really much addressed in the recent past is something that all maintenance crews and snowfighting teams have to deal with on a perpetual basis—and that is asset corrosion. It’s insidious, costly, and, unfortunately, inevitable when you’re dealing with substances like salt and salt brine. The Utah DOT has been running a program for corrosion mitigation on its winter fleet, and several of the techniques they have been employing have not only been successful, but could prove to be useful for other state DOTs struggling with the same issues.

A good portion of snowplow vehicles are equipped with GPS, but not all—maybe not even the lion’s share, but according to new contributing author Megan Ray Nichols, there is a big cost savings to be had by leveraging data to improve efficiency—savings in both time and materials.

I suppose when you come right down to it, the thing that matters most, and I mean more than anything else, is making gains in safety. Now, safety is connoted in all sorts of ways: fewer accidents, fewer deaths, less time lost, less burden on emergency services, a generally calmer and steadier driving public, and so on. I don’t know that there is even a satisfactory definition that could encapsulate all  the ways and means by which “safety” is achieved. We must simply continue to come at it from many disparate angles. To that end, Dr. Marcus Scherer takes a look at salt dispersal levels and their effect on increased road and environmental safety, in his piece titled “When Less is More.”

There’s lots more in the issue, and I won’t go into it beat by beat, but there is one thing I wanted to include but just couldn’t buy the room for. Back in June, I asked the snowfighting portion of our readership to write in to me and give me an honest look at how they do their jobs, and one did: Darryl Wehner, chief street maintenance operator for the city of Dickinson, North Dakota. He had lots to share, but these two “common challenges” particularly resonated, and I hope might serve as a good entré both to this issue of Roads & Bridges and your perspective on the snowfighter’s life: “Returning to re-plow streets that were clean until someone with a four-wheel drive satisfies his need to run down the windrow and spread it out again ... or when the crew stops at a local eatery for a break 10 hours into an extended shift, there always seems to be someone calling City Hall complaining that we’re wasting tax dollars instead of clearing the snow.” It is in our interest to always consider the human aspect of our collective dependence on bettering “safety.” 

Enjoy the issue! 

About The Author: Budzynski is managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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