VDOT, city prepare for winter weather

Published 10:07 pm Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The preparations have been months in the making, but the Virginia Department of Transportation and Suffolk’s Public Works Department say they are ready should winter weather hit the city.

“We get ready for snow season in the middle of hurricane season,” said Public Works Director L.J. Hansen. “We actually start our preparations in August, where we are looking at the conditions of the spreaders, and what pieces of equipment need maintenance, and what pieces need to be replaced.”

He said there is a calibration process that takes place with much of its equipment that takes place in August and September, and in October, the city replenished its supply of salt and sand. There has already been one day in which city crews put down brine on some of the city’s bridges.

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“At this point, we’re ready,” Hansen said. “We stand as ready as we can.”

He said with every weather event being different, there is no standard protocol that the city follows in treating winter weather.

“If it’s going to rain before it turns to snow, then that means there’s certain things we just can’t do,” Hansen said. “You can’t go out and put salt or brine down if it’s going to rain first because it washes off.”

Hansen said the city focuses on pre-treating bridges and elevated roads when the temperatures drop, because they will freeze first. Those areas include the Holland Bypass, the Mills Godwin Jr. Memorial Bridge, Broad Street Bridge, Pinner Street Bridge and most other bridges in the city. He said those areas are prone to freezing first because cold air comes up underneath them.

He also said areas like the downtown intersection of North Main Street and Constance Road “is a particularly troublesome spot” due to the hill on Main Street. While it doesn’t freeze first, the road can get slippery there, and “that one poses a real problem for us.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t even really require a rain event or a snow event,” Hansen said. “It just has to be cold enough temperatures where we fear there could be ice developing on those.”

After pre-treating, Hansen said the city will put its staff on standby and have its equipment ready to go, though it doesn’t keep salt and sand mix in its truck because it can harden as it gets colder. Instead, it will keep trucks near the abrasive piles.

The city is responsible for taking care of its own roads during winter weather situations, while VDOT handles all of I-64 and I-664.

“We take care of that primary road, because it ties into the interstate,” said VDOT Interstate Maintenance Manager Joe Lomax. “I take care of it, and then when you get to Suffolk, up all the way to the Blackwater (River), and then that’s when the Franklin residency for VDOT picks up.”

Lomax said VDOT will overlap along border areas in the city, such as Route 58 and College Drive, to provide greater coverage during winter weather.

“A lot of times we’ll overlap with a locality,” Lomax said, “and, as a general rule, I won’t stop plowing, but I might stop putting down my chemicals after I get past the boundary, because if I’ve got to use the route, I just tell my guys: keep your plows down until you get off and go back. Just stop using the salt.”

One of the trickier spots to handle for VDOT’s crews is the convergence of I-664, I-264, I-64, as well as Routes 58, 460, 13 and Jolliff Road.

“It is more complicated, and it requires more planning and teamwork, and more patience from the public,” Lomax said. “You’ve got multiple ramps that cross over and merge, and you widen to four lanes. You’ve got ramps coming on, ramps going off. You’ve got several complicated areas.”

For the Hampton Roads region, VDOT has a $10.1 million snow removal budget for this winter’s weather and has more than 500 pieces of equipment available for snow and ice-control activities. They include trucks with plows and salt spreaders, front end loaders and backhoes. Across the Hampton Roads District, VDOT is responsible for 2,637 lane miles, 872 of those on the interstates.

For comparison, the city is responsible for about 1,650 lane miles, which Hansen equates to a two-lane road going from Suffolk to Chicago using about 25 plows.

“You can imagine how long it would take 25 plows to clear a road from here to Chicago while it’s snowing,” Hansen said.

VDOT has 24,809 tons of salt, 18,136 tons of sand and 189,000 gallons of salt brine at its disposal for Hampton Roads and replenishes its supplies as they are used throughout the winter.

“There’s never an issue with having enough of that on hand,” said Brian Mosier, VDOT’s Hampton Roads District infrastructure manager.

Mosier said it prioritizes clearing interstate and primary roads it is responsible for, with a goal to have all of its state roads passable within 48 hours following the end of a storm. The agency has more than 300 of its own personnel available for snow removal, and another 300 contractors to supplement that.

Bridges and structures over water are a challenge for crews to handle with the freeze potential in those areas, Mosier said.

Since April, VDOT has been tweaking its snow plans, training, calibrating equipment and reviewing routes, as well as signing contracts with contractors, inspecting equipment and installing automatic vehicle location technology, or AVLs, on its equipment. The AVLs, which are on both VDOT and contractors’ trucks, allow the public to track where plows are located during larger winter weather events when it snows at least 2 inches or more.

“What we do now is monitor the weather,” Mosier said. “We have a couple of different systems we use and watch the freeze potentials for the bridges and the structures, and then the roadways. … We’ve got a lot of monitoring we do.”

In terms of the city’s treatment of its roads before, during and after a storm, Hansen said it looks at myriad factors, including the nature of the storm and when it is scheduled to arrive — down to what part of the day it will arrive, noting that storms behave differently at different times of day. It also works in tandem with VDOT and neighboring localities on storm preparations and road treatment.

“All of those things really do factor into our decisions about how we’re going to address treatment, whether or not we can pre-treat,” Hansen said.

But while the city endeavors to treat its primary and secondary roads, don’t expect much help on neighborhood streets due to size of the city and having to work around cars and other obstructions in neighborhoods. In 13 years, Hansen can recall just one instance where city plows made it onto neighborhood streets.

“We always start with the primary roads,” Hansen said. “We move from primary roads to secondary roads of greater significance, which are typically collector and arterial (roads). And then we move to other secondary roads. It’s extremely rare when we do get around to doing anything on the residential roads.”