Clear and clean roads are departments winter goal
|Dave Babcock has worked for UDOT for 29 years, a lot of it on the road actually pushing snow. He has seen a lot of changes in the way the department deals with storms and is now working to bring more changes and improvements to the area he manages to improve the roads and safety. |
While most people are basking in the warm fall sun, with shades of summer still breaking through a times, Dave Babcock is thinking cooler and whiter thoughts.
As the Utah Department of Transportation's maintenance area supervisor in a large part of the Castle Country area he is thinking snow and all the planning that goes into removing it from the areas highways.
The area Babcock supervises extends along most of US 6 from near the Skyview area, all of US 10 to Ferron, all of the canyons, including Willow Creek Canyon up to the grade where it begins to turn into Indian Canyon, SR 31, SR 29, SR 96 and SR 264 to Fairview Canyon, along with many other roads that the state is responsible for. That equates to 300 miles of roadway.
And in that area a lot of snow can fly anytime between the middle of September to the end of May.
"We have 33 employees, 26 snow plow trucks, two snowblowers and three motorgraders in the area," he says as he sits in his office at the UDOT center in south Price. "It's a lot of ground to cover."
The immensity of the job that Babcock and his crews must perform during the winter is hard to fathom. Every time it snows they must keep areas where the snow has fallen clear, particularly the high canyon passes. But to do this it takes more than just equipment and manpower, the department also relies on certain materials to do their work and to keep the roads passable and safe.
"On an average year we use about 10,000 tons of pre-mix on our roads in this area," he states referring to the substance that the departments sanders spew out on the highways. "I thought about it the other day and it never occurred to me that that amount of material equates to a coal train 100 cars long full of the stuff.'
That "stuff" he refers to as pre-mix is a combination of a dark red colored salt that comes from Redmond near Richfield and a grit material that comes from the Fillmore area.
"It is mixed one to one in our storage shed by a loader, and then we load it in our sanders as needed," he explained.
The salt helps to melt the snow and ice while the deslicking grit gives vehicles traction. The use of these materials is pretty common around the country, but the use of salt has been curtailed in some areas because of environmental concerns.
"We haven't stopped using salt, but it is being used in less proportion to the grit than in many places around the country," he explains. "In sensitive areas like up at Scofield we mix it much weaker and at times may not even use the salt at all."
But as with other technology, the art of cleaning roads and melting ice has taken great steps forward. For the last three years Babcock's department has also started to use anti-icing and pre-wetting agents for control as well.
The anti-icing agents include using magnesium chloride, a well know substance in this area because most of the gas exploration and development companies use it to control dust on the dirt roads in the county.
"We spray it on the road with tanks we have on trucks and it snags onto the moisture as it begins to fall from the sky," he explained. "It keeps that first moisture from freezing and that provides a barrier between the road and the ice and snow. It keeps it from sticking to the roadway."
However, this type of treatment must be used in conjunction with some precise weather forecasting and is sensitive to what happens when the moisture does come out of the sky.
"It's effectiveness can be lost if it rains heavily before the snow flies," he noted. "In that case it just washes away."
However Babcock says the program has worked well in the three years they have been using it, because it not only prevents the snow from building up, but it is also easier on the environment and the road structures.
Pre-wetting is another process that the area is just now starting to get into.
"In that process we have tanks with the magnesium chloride mounted on the same truck the deslicking grit is loaded into," he stated. "The operator then sprays as needed the liquid on the grit as we apply it to the road. Doing this accelerates the salting process and even better, the material also lays in the pores of the roadway. If there is no further moisture on the road before it snows again, it waits for that storms snow."
Babcock also noted that equipment has changed vastly over the years. UDOT has moved away from bobtail trucks and almost everything they run now are 10 wheelers. More and more vehicles are getting automatic transmissions, all have reversible snow plows and in the past couple of years, with more arriving this year, the trucks have wing plows on them.
"The standard plow on one of these trucks clears a width of 10 feet," he noted. "With the wings we now can clear a 16 foot swath."
However, this also adds some problems to the use of plows on the road. Snow plow drivers often have trouble with the way motorists drive around their equipment, particularly when they pass on the right of the plow instead of the left. With the wing plows this could become more of a problem than in the past.
"We have installed lights and all kinds of reflective surfaces on the wings, but some people still want to pass on the right side," he said. "That could be very dangerous for both the driver of the plow and the motorist if a vehicle hits one of the wings."
He said that the department has developed a policy to try and have a regular plow following a wing plow truck to keep people from doing that.
The state has a plan to replace most plow trucks every 14 years, so Babcock's operation gets a handful of new ones each snow season. The trucks usually accumulate between 150-200,000 miles of use during the time they are owned by UDOT.
As for the sanding equipment, the department has moved to using mostly stainless steel sanders so that the sanders themselves will be in service as long as the truck is. In the past, the ratio has been two sanders for a truck during it's service time.
While equipment and materials are important, the biggest key to moving the huge amount of snow that can fall in the area are the people who drive the plows. Babcock explained that seasoned drivers get yearly training on driving the machines and that new drivers actually go through classroom instruction as well as a hands on driving course using the plows before they are put on any kind of run by themselves.
"It's a ride and drive program," explained Babcock. "Everyone recertifies on the equipment each year. Now they are installing new snow plow simulators in a training facility in Salt Lake. There is going to be a trial period to see if they really work, using a test group and a control group. If the simulators work it will help a great deal with the training."
Driving a snowplow is not an easy job. It takes a great deal of concentration and one must know how to deal with the dynamics of a vehicle that weighs many thousands of pounds that is pushing tons of wet slushy snow on a slick highway.
As for road conditions, the canyon now has cameras installed which are linked to the UDOT operations center in Salt Lake. This helps with keeping the entire state up to date on road conditions.
"Our people report into the center twice a day or if the conditions change so that the people there can inform the public of the conditions," he noted.
Babcock says his office goes nuts with phone calls from people wanting to know road conditions during storms, but they could get the information they need easier and quicker if they would just dial 511. Dialing 511 links a caller with the information they need.
"Our objectives are to take care of what we have, make it work better and more efficiently and to improve safety on the highway for everyone," he says.
It's a big, big job, but even Babcock is hoping for a stormy, white winter, one in which he and his crews have to work very hard. He knows if it does snow hard and often his $775,000 snow removal budget will disappear quickly, something that is common during heavy winter seasons. But he and his crews take it in stride.
"It's what we do. Besides, we really need the water," he concluded.