County snowplows have been busy... and winter has only begun
Usually the Dakota County road maintenance crews go out 30 to 33 times during the winter season to take care of the roads, but this year that number is already up to 28.
But this has not been a usual season so far, according to Jim Bell, Dakota County transportation maintenance supervisor.
Bell, a 35-year-veteran of Dakota County Transportation Department, describes the times he sends out the crews to clear snow and sand and/or salt as "events." This year's season began Nov. 12, with the vast majority of "events" in December.
"We've already have had 23 events," Bell said. "I describe an event as when we have snow or ice on the majority of county roads, and yes, I think it has been unusually high so far."
Most recently, the road conditions have been a combination of frost, snow, and freezing rain, all providing slippery road conditions.
Bell is an almost constant monitor of the weather conditions, having his trucks and drivers ready to go at any hour, any day. The county has 23 tandem trucks and three graders for snow removal. Another tandem truck was approved for purchase last week. The trucks and drivers are responsible for maintenance of 450 centerline roads or 1,000 lanes of roads in the county (each east and west lane and turn lanes are counted in this number).
Most of the trucks are stored at the Empire transportation facility, but there are vehicles at both the Hastings and Farmington shops, for winter only. Each truck has a designated route and driver, "storm after storm," Bell said.
Since 2005, the county has not been using much sand - partly because it must be cleaned up in the spring - opting instead to use road salt or a combination of road salt and magnesium chloride. Typically, the county uses 12,000 tons of salt each year.
Normally, the road salt will do the job of melting the ice if the temperature is 15 degrees and above. Temperatures much colder require the other combination, which the county mixes itself, Bell said.
When Bell calls out his drivers and trucks after an overnight snow, generally at 2 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., the first sweep of the roads is completed by about 7:30 a.m., to five hours later.
Most of the snowplow drivers are regular employees of the transportation departments, but there are also several seasonal staff people. Bell also draws from construction, survey and traffic management staff for drivers.
As his drivers work to maintain the roads, they also notice what is going on with drivers.
The number one concert, Bell said, is the rate of speed of the drivers.
"They should be slowing down," he said. "There is state law about driving with due care depending on weather and road conditions. That's not what they re doing."
He pointed to last weekend's snow/freezing rain conditions throughout the area.
"That was not an isolated area," he said. "You can't drive 50 to 55 miles an hour and still have control of your car. If it means going 25 to 30 miles per hour, then do it."
Some people are in "too much of a hurry," Bell said. "We've had some try to go around us when we're on the road."
He urges patience, slowing down on the roads.
"Using discretion and common sense is the key," he said.