Long string of events

Winter of 2013-14 challenged public works officials across the country

Benjamin J. Jordan, P.E., and Mary M. Maher; Contributing Authors / April 30, 2015

Persistent cold combined with numerous precipitation events last winter challenged snow fighters from the Midwest to the East Coast and points south to the Gulf Coast. Winter 2013-14 broke records and demanded flexibility in winter-maintenance tactics.
 
Public agencies responded with ingenuity, working through established plans and making in-season adjustments to keep roads open and travelers safe.
 
The mix of frequent storms and relentless cold is not what street and highway agencies expect in an average winter. Typically, there are breaks that allow agencies to push back snow windrows, repair equipment and attend to other maintenance.
 
This one was different, said Mike Kennedy, director of transportation maintenance and repair for Minneapolis. “Snow that fell in November didn’t melt until April.”
 
In a city prepared for lots of snow in a single event, Minneapolis had only one snowfall over 10 in. Several events left 4 to 8 in. on the ground. The rest of the time, it was one small event after another. The city’s 2013-14 total was 70 in. of snow versus the typical 50. That included two ice events that helped make last winter “one of the top five worst in 23 years,” according to Kennedy. Freezing rain turned to slush and snow. Then prolonged subzero temperatures bonded thick sheets of ice to the pavement.
 
A record of nearly 95 in. of snow fell in Farmington Hills, Mich., last year, more than double the average accumulation. Deep cold also gripped the city between December and April, said Department of Public Works Supervisor Kevin McCarthy, with 82 days below freezing and 17 days below zero.
 
A protracted ice storm proved a challenge for Toronto last winter. Unusual in this part of Canada, the December coating of ice lasted for days and challenged standard deicing techniques, said Dominic Guthrie, senior coordinator for emergency and winter operations. In addition to battling ice on pavements, crews worked to remove tree limbs downed by the storm.
 
Ice is the usual winter culprit in Charlotte, N.C. This year, two significant snow events helped make it the worst winter in 10 years. Ken Martin, deputy street superintendent, recalls the double punch of a 4-in. snowfall in late January followed by 11 in. more on Valentine’s Day. Those events stretched resources, as the city worked to clear streets, maintain equipment and manage snow disposal.
 
Winter also reached to Baton Rouge, La., which does not have a season they call winter. Last year was another story, said city traffic engineers Sarah Paul Edel and Cyndi Pennington. The duo stepped up to find solutions when the city experienced two serious winter-like events that iced pavements on bridges for multiple days. “Normally, we see snow once every five years,” Edel explained. “And ice, when it comes, doesn’t last more than overnight or until the sun comes out.”
 
Armed with a plan
A common denominator for these cities was having a written plan to guide their agency’s response when weather events affect transportation. Street departments accustomed to snow and ice establish winter-maintenance policies and procedures they update regularly. Where winter is rare, agencies follow general emergency plans. Baton Rouge went into “hurricane mode” when the ice hit in early 2014, bringing together employees across different departments to handle winter-storm tasks.
 
Flexibility is the key to working a plan effectively in the face of the unexpected. Toronto typically uses only sodium chloride salt on winter streets. But Guthrie said they switched last season to magnesium chloride and agricultural-byproduct deicer blends on some major roads for better melting performance at lower temperatures. They plan to continue using these alternative deicers in the coming winter.
 
Farmington Hills Road Maintenance Supervisor Bryan Pickworth noted they are “big advocates of anti-icing.” Their plan specifies anti-icing for pavement temperatures down to 20°. In 2013-14, conditions were too cold to anti-ice before many events. The department cut back on salt use and got “aggressive with plow blades.” They applied salt only when the sun came out and warmed pavement temperatures above the teens.
 
The two cold-laden January storms that iced pavements in Baton Rouge left the city’s many bridges slippery for 24 to 48 hours. The first event came as a surprise. “People didn’t know to stay off the roads,” Pennington said. “Watching one crash after another from the traffic control center, we felt pretty helpless.”
 
With no deicing materials available, all they could do was spread sand on bridges and alert the public. Determined to be prepared for a repeat—which came one week later—the traffic engineers searched for deicer supplies and contacted members of the American Public Works Association Winter Maintenance Subcommittee to seek deicer-application advice. Rock salt was impossible to get, but they obtained liquid deicer from the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport. Staff brainstormed on how to apply the liquid, deploying two sewer jetters with front-mounted wash nozzles. When the second storm proved as bad as the first, these trucks did a good job applying the deicer to clear the bridges.
 
Provisions to deal with operator fatigue during long-lasting storms are part of any good winter plan. Last season stretched many operations to the limits. Minneapolis implemented 12-hour shifts for round-the-clock coverage, but some personnel still felt the strain of 45 days straight with no time off. Crews in Toronto worked every weekend from mid-December to mid-February. “Staff members deserve a lot of credit for putting their personal lives on hold to keep the roads safe,” noted Guthrie.
 

Equipment feels the strain of relentless cold temperatures and little or no downtime between storms. Agencies had mechanics on the job with the same schedule as plowing and salting crews, so they could keep up with repairs to trucks, plows and spreaders.
 

After a winter like 2013-14, public agencies across the country are motivated to review every aspect of their operation and apply lessons learned.
 
Agencies without the personnel to fully staff two shifts took other approaches to limit fatigue. McCarthy and Pickworth called meetings during several events last season, pulling drivers off the streets at intervals. Periodic stops requiring operators to do walk-around inspections of their trucks also helped fight fatigue. Farmington Hills ceased plowing operations on local streets by 9 p.m. and scheduled laborers on weekends to do preventive maintenance on equipment, relieving operators of that task.
 
Highway and street departments’ salt use during the winter of 2013-14 depended on the type of storm events they had to tackle.
 
Due to their ice storm, usage in Toronto was the highest ever at 240,000 tons, well above the average of 143,000 tons. Dubuque, Iowa, experienced near-record salt use thanks to double the number of ice events, according to Street and Sewer Maintenance Supervisor John Klostermann. But with an order of 12,000 tons on hand and 2,000 tons left over from the previous year, Klostermann still helped a local school district meet a shortfall.
 
Martin in Charlotte typically orders 6,500 tons of salt for the season. The city used nearly 60% of its stockpile in the two largest storms. But with fewer ice events, they managed to supply other local agencies that came up short.
 
The agencies stress that purchasing salt supplies early and having adequate storage capacity are important steps to avoid shortages.
 
Equipment feels the strain of relentless cold temperatures and little or no downtime between storms. Agencies had mechanics on the job with the same schedule as plowing and salting crews, so they could keep up with repairs to trucks, plows and spreaders.
 
“Mechanics kept equipment running using back-to-back 12-hour shifts,” Kennedy reported from Minneapolis. “The cold caused more breakage of metal parts last winter; we’re still finding damage as we go over plows and spreaders during the off-season.”
 
Farmington Hills saw a shortage of cutting edges and, in one case, traveled several hours away to replenish their supply because none were available locally.
 
Worth another look
After a winter like last, public agencies are motivated to review every aspect of their operation and apply lessons learned.
 
Charlotte implemented an Emergency Task Force in 2013-14 that met daily and provided all departments, the media and the public with accurate information during storms. Martin expects to continue this effective information-sharing tool.
 
Ideas for scheduling and snow routes are on the list in Farmington Hills. McCarthy and Pickworth plan to make the change in local street-plowing hours permanent and adopt a policy to anti-ice, but not plow, local streets on garbage days. They will take the suggestion of crew leaders to divide snow-route miles more evenly so all operators can finish in the same amount of time.
 
Kennedy plans more cross-training of employees from other departments that supplement Minneapolis’ winter-maintenance crews so they are ready when called.
 
Agencies also are doing an assessment of equipment to improve operations. Charlotte is buying plows for existing light trucks that were not previously in the snow plan. Farmington Hills will add a wing plow for the first time and purchase hook-lift trucks with swappable salt spreaders and anti-icing tanks.
 
Baton Rouge plans to review existing equipment and new equipment specifications for pieces they can adapt to winter use. Edel said they also will identify reliable sources for salt and deicing liquids to improve the city’s response if winter comes calling again.
 
“We are a winter city, set up to handle most storms and adjust as needed,” Edel said. “The department has seen winters like this before, so we have a good plan in place to manage it.”
 
Such comments from Kennedy in Minneapolis and Klostermann in Dubuque capture the resilience of agencies that look back on the winter of 2013-14 as a good test of their winter-operations plans. Making wise use of the off-season, agencies are implementing improvements to help them continue to deliver safe roads to the public during the winter of 2014-15 and beyond. R&B

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