County engineers, city maintenance crews preparing for upcoming winter

GTNS photo by David Hotle

Snow and freezing rain had not stopped Wednesday before plow crews were out in Washington, removing the latest falling of snow from the roadways.
GTNS photo by David Hotle Snow and freezing rain had not stopped Wednesday before plow crews were out in Washington, removing the latest falling of snow from the roadways.

Winter weather got an early start this year with snow making its first appearance on Oct. 28. However, area county engineers and city maintenance crews have spent the past several months planning for the upcoming weather to ensure safety and drivability for citizens.

Henry County Engineer Jake Hotchkiss said the planning for winter is done in the spring with help from the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT). He said it sends out a request form for salt and sand supply.

The goal, he said, is to have extra salt in the shed by the end of the season to carry over for the following year. Due to the severity of last years winter, the county supply was depleted. This year the county chose to purchase more to help rebuild the supply and ensure the county would have extra after this winter.

Scott Cline, engineer for Jefferson County, said his department ordered an extra 100 tons of salt this year for the same reason. For purchasing, he said the county uses the Iowa DOT bid letting where each city and county is sent a request form to fill out in regard to how many tons it anticipates needing. He said in Jefferson County, the typical order is anywhere from 4-600 tons of salt per year and reordered 25 tons at a time as needed.

Hotchkiss said the county has to be careful how much it orders because if it purchases the salt and sand, it also have to have a place to store it. For this reason, the Henry County replenishes the supply as it is used to make sure there is enough to keep the roads safe, but not too much there is an over supply and no storage space.

“We don’t want to be in February and running out of salt so as we go through November and December I’ll make that call to order more salt or not,” he said.

In Washington, the county supply is also used by the city. Maintenance and Construction Superintendent JJ Bell said the city used to have a storage shed but it had to be torn down to make room for its new building. Now the city purchases salt from the county by keeping track of how much it needs.

He said the city budgets for about 250 tons of salt every year and last year only used about 200 ton. Crews also use brine and go through about 5,000 gallons per year. He said the salt and brine are primarily used at intersections and on sharp curves in the city to help drivers gain traction and on the square where cars may need it to gain traction when pulling out of a parking place.

Once the temperature drops and enough snow is on the pavement, Hotchkiss said his crews head out. Crews generally go out in the morning but plans are subject to change based on the weather. If snow still is coming down heavily, he said operators will wait because trying to move snow while the wind is blowing and the snow still is falling can make the roads slicker.

He said usually the whole county is plowed at once. Operators each have a specific territory they cover and are sent out from Mt. Pleasant to cover that designated area. Gravel roads are different, however, with each driver leaving from their territory shed. This year there will be eight trucks out because the county added an additional shed and truck for a territory near New London.

However, not all drivers need to go for every snowfall, he said. Hotchkiss said there have been times where the northern half of the county has more snow than the southern half. In that case, only the part of the county that needs plowed or salted is attended to.

Bell said Washington has six trucks: two running north, two south, one east and one west. This year, two end loaders with 11-foot blades will push the snow on the square into the middle before retreating to help plow other areas of the city.

The trickiest part about plowing in the city, he said, is the square because of the amount of cars parked there. However, the Washington City Council is currently considering adding signage to prevent parking while crews are plowing which will help.

Cline said it can be tricky to determine when to send out crews based on the time of year the snow falls. For the first snow last week, he said the Jefferson County crews did not go out because the pavement was already warm and the snow melted rather quickly. Otherwise once the pavement temperature drops below freezing, ensuring the snow will not melt on his own, his crews are out.

All department heads reported not hiring additional season staff. Hotchkiss said he is staffed based on snow removal. He said the budget is set up to ensure there are enough people to help with snow maintenance and the part time staffers are called in to help when people are sick or on extended leave.

Cline said when it comes time to plowing, the whole team gets involved and crews will typically start at 5 a.m. and go out as late as 7 p.m. but do not plow overnight due to not having enough staff to create shifts. In Washington, Bell said his crews look at the weather patterns to determine when the snow will start or stop and take off as early as 3 a.m. to make sure the roads are clear for the morning commute. He said in order to clear the whole town it takes about four to five hours but it all depends on when the snow begins and stops.