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PennDot Says it Needs to be 'On Our Game' as Road Crews Prepare For Latest Winter Storm

by on February 04, 2014 1:25 PM

With a winter storm warning in effect for Tuesday night into Wednesday, PennDot, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, is working around the clock to treat roads in preparation for the coming storm.

"In our business, you're only as good as your last snow storm," says Chris Maney, PennDot's Centre County Maintenance Manager. "We need to make sure we're on our game every time."

PennDot could be in for a busy night. AccuWeather is calling for four to eight inches of snow in the State College area, along with the possibility of sleet.

PennDot is responsible for handling more than 1,500 miles of road in Centre County, a region that gets an average of 57 inches of snowfall every year. Eighty six operators, 10 foremen, and nine mechanics are responsible for the vehicles that salt, brine, and plow roads during winter storms -- often working 12-hour shifts. Three anti-icing trucks, ten loaders, and forty-five plows are at their disposal, with the goal of keeping roads passable for travelers.

When a storm calls for a mix of snow and ice, PennDot pretreats the road with a salt brine - a simple mixture of salt and water. Prewetting the salt ensures that there will be enough moisture to facilitate the melting process, allowing the mixture to work faster and at a lower temperature than dry salt -- and with less waste. On major interstates and roadways, PennDot's goal is to have a truck cycle through approximately every hour until all lanes are clear.

Last year, 429,975 gallons of salt brine was spread on roads across Centre County.

"As temperatures drop, as long as brine runs, we use it because it introduces moisture," says Maney. "Moisture and traffic makes salt work. The colder it gets, the less salt can do."

Brown, dirt colored slush on the roads is a sign of a job well done, says Maney. With freezing rain and sleet in the forecast, it's imperative that the salt brine is effective in order to prevent icy surfaces from forming.

"You want to see chocolate melt," says Maney. "You don't want to see white."

According to the State College Borough of Public Works Department, when temperatures fall below 21°F, a 2:1 mix of salt and grit will be used to prevent "over salting". Trucks are now equipped with pre-wet applicators and infrared sensors, which allows crews to decide how much salt to spread salt, depending on the surface temperature, not the air temperature.

Due to a national shortage and 60% increase in the price of salt since last year, the practice of "salting" away a small storm is no longer considered acceptable. When snow accumulation is more than 3 inches, main streets, arteries, and residential streets will be plowed. If temperatures rise above freezing, a decision may be made not to place salt on residential streets and alleys and allow the snow to melt naturally.

According to Maney, PennDot has improved salt spreading techniques over the last few years to limit total usage. In the past, hydraulic trucks equipped with salt spreaders were wasteful. If a truck was stopped at a red light and the driver forgot to turn off the spreader, it would leave a pile of material in the intersection. Now, trucks are equipped with a computerized system that compensates for speed, meaning 300 pounds of salt are spread every mile - no matter how fast or slow the vehicle is moving.

In addition, the increased use of salt brine allows for more effective anti-icing with less salt. According to Maney, 6-10 gallons of pre-wet brine is the equivalent of 100 pounds of dry.

With the forecast calling for heavy snowfall and sleet, PennDot will be working hard to make traveling safer. However, since some roads are still brimming with salt from the last storm, Maney says those roads will have a leg up on the ice and snow expected from the latest storm.

"Usually you have rain, and salt gets washed away," he says. "The residue is already there - it's just waiting on moisture."

Click HERE for more information from PennDot, including winter driving tips and information on emergency kits for your car.

For the latest AccuWeather forecast click HERE.

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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