By Peter Becker
Managing Editor
The first significant snow storm of the season came just days after the start of winter. Following a light snow in time for Christmas, PennDOT and municipal crews were gearing for a big one, Thursday. With the light, mild winter of 2011-2012 behind them, crews and the public alike is left speculating what the current winter will bring.
Ken Thiele, Acting Manager of the Pike County PennDOT office, gave an overview Thursday afternoon of their strategy, just as snow was reportedly arriving in Greentown and heading east.
Crews were starting 12-hour shifts, noon to midnight and midnight to noon. With 21 snow routes, the state has 19 of their own trucks. They were each ready to go.
Ahead of the storm, two trucks carrying salt-brine tanks, went over the state roads spraying the mixture on the pavement. Thiele likened this to painting the roads with salt water. Once the water evaporates, a coating of salt whitens the highway, and helps keep the snow and ice from building up.
Last year's mild winter meant a good supply of salt and anti-skid would be left over. The state contract, however, requires that at least 75 percent of the road material ordered ahead of time must be purchased. They don't cut back on the contract year to year. Thiele noted that despite the prognosticators, winter weather is highly unpredictable. The cold and snow are just facts of life of living in Northeast Pennsylvania, he noted, so they must be prepared.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has a priority system of which roads must be addressed above the others. Interstates are the top priority, since they are the major conduits of travel and commerce. Holiday travelers are in abundance, cutting straight through Pike County and the southern end of Wayne County.
PennDOT plow crews work on a two-hour cycle on the interstate, coming back to treat the road again in that much time.
Limited access highways that are similar to interstates- such as the Casey Highway in Lackawanna County, are PennDOT's second priority. Pike and Wayne don't have any of these.
Other state roads follow, as third priority. Thiele stated that in Pike County, they have enough personnel and equipment to be working on both I-84 and other state roads at the same time, but if there is a major problem on I-84, they will pull trucks off other roads.
In Pike County, PennDOT has 810 "snow lane miles" to plow. Most roads in Pike have two lanes; some have three. The average lane covers 38 to 40 miles in one "snow route."
State policy, he said, can allow as much as five inches of snow on the third-priority roads, although they recognize that is not easy for travel. Their crews try not to let the snow get that deep, he added.
Another difference is the salt content. Interstates are treated with 100 percent salt. Other roads may get 50 percent salt and 50 percent anti-skid. Roads with lower traffic counts may get as little as 25 percent salt and 75 percent anti-skid.
Secondary roads, Thiele explained, typically lack the sub base that can handle a lot of salt. Unless frost has built up in the pavement, the salt will draw up the moisture from underneath.
PennDOT is always looking for temporary winter help. Thiele noted that in Pike County, they could use additional personnel to plow roads, and could use a couple more diesel mechanics. Truck drivers, he said, have to have a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) and at least six months experience. Diesel mechanics must have a Class #7 Inspection License in addition to a CDL.
While these restrictions narrow the field of candidates, PennDOT functions with professional drivers, he said. Applications are done on-line with the state office in Harrisburg. When the county office needs someone, headquarters is contacted for applicants interested in working locally. Interviews are then done locally.
They try and hire their temporary drivers in October or November, ahead of the snow, but openings still exist.
Thiele commented that most of the public is courteous on the road, around state trucks. Getting used to the first snowfall is the most difficult; drivers realize it's winter again and must adapt.
When a PennDOT driver comes upon a stranded motorist, the driver will stop and be sure the person is all right. The driver can then go on the radio to summon help. PennDOT, however, does not pull vehicles out of ditches or snow banks, due to liability, Thiele said.
They do have an emergency wrecker available on the interstate, to pull vehicles to the side of the road if necessary, so that crews can continue plowing.
Mitch Simon, Manager of the Wayne County PennDOT office, was not available to comment.
Thiele urged everyone to drive safely this winter. Drivers are advised to give adequate time to get to their destination, and don't drive too fast for conditions. Good tires are needed. He also advised not following too closely behind plow trucks, in order to give the salt a chance to begin its work.