Keeping roadways safe: Village handles snow, frigid temperatures

Photo and Article by Emily Jankauski/the Mahomet Citizen: The Village of Mahomet’s seven-member snow plow and snow removal crew handles an average of 20 inches of snowfall each winter. Pictured from left are Jim Barden, Jason Pryor, Cameron Wygant and Sean Roberts.

The Mahomet Daily and Mahomet Citizen share one story each week. 

It was only a few weeks ago that Mahomet residents were dreaming of a white Christmas. But now, with two separate 3- to 4-inch snow events on Dec. 24 and Dec. 29, and temperatures dropping well below zero, the village’s transportation superintendent Eric Crowley is left with a well-worked, seven-member crew.

“Snow is the one part of my job that makes me gray-headed,” Crowley said jokingly. “We want to do as much as we can for every resident of the village, and it stresses me out, to say the least.”

The Christmas Eve snowfall went “fairly well” according to Crowley as his department, consisting of four full-time employees, one part-time employee and two individuals who help out on an as-needed basis from the water and sewer department, cleared the roadways.

“Christmas is always a special time and you want to be with your family and kids,” Crowley said. “We didn’t work at all the same times, but we made it work. We worked about 11 hours each, so that’s about 70 working hours.”

Crowley depends on preparedness and timing to make a successful handling of the snowfall. Preparedness is two-fold as it requires both the equipment and the crew be completely ready for each snowfall.

“I try to make sure everyone is rested up so we can work those long hours,” he said. “I tell all of the guys to have hats and gloves and to keep everything in the truck with them. We throw hand warmers in the truck just in case something should go wrong.”

On Tuesday, Jan. 2, the National Weather Service issued a Wind Chill Advisory for 32 Illinois counties beginning on Wednesday, Jan. 3 and ending on Thursday, Jan. 4 at noon. The National Weather Service said it expected wind chills ranging from “15 below zero to 25 below zero.”

Such conditions not only present frostbite and hypothermia concerns, but they also posed threats of equipment malfunctions.

“Cold is not good on our equipment, and it’s doubly bad when you have diesel-running vehicles like we do,” Crowley said. “Our fuel supplier will put additive in our fuel tank to help keep our engines running and to prevent the diesel from gelling. We’ll also add a little more additive to each piece of equipment to make sure we don’t gel up.”

Bitter cold temperatures also create travel concerns for village residents due to the icy, snowy roads. Crowley said his biggest concern with this week’s frigid temperatures is the effectiveness of the village’s salt.

“If you get as low as the 15 to 17 degree mark, then our salt stops working.”

The inability to utilize salt to lessen the wintery effects creates hazardous driving conditions for area residents. Due to black ice patches, 10 vehicles crashed on Interstate 72, near milepost 172, and Interstate 74, near the Lincoln Avenue and Neil Street exits, on Tuesday morning according to the Illinois State Police.

The village used 25 to 30 tons of its 300 reserved tons of salt during the Christmas Eve snowfall. Each year, Crowley maintains the village’s salt supply by placing a salt bid through the state.

“It’s (the bid) based on history and past years,” Crowley said. “The tricky part is I need to put my bid in by March and April to see if I get bid on for the next winter. You never know how much snow and ice you’re going to get.”

Relying on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Crowley uses NOAA’s weather predictions and historical data to judge his state salt bid.

“They’re (NOAA) very good for the one to four months range,” Crowley said. “But after that, they’re pretty much looking at historical data.”

Compared to previous years, Crowley said the recent 300-ton salt bids are due to two changes within the village.

First, the relocation of the village’s transportation department to 218 S. Lake of the Woods Road provides a larger salt shed. Second, the village’s steady population growth necessitated larger salt bids.

“The village has grown,” Crowley said. “We grew very rapidly in the ’90s and the early 2000s, and after the Great Recession, we’re finally at that point again where we’re growing really good again.”

In addition to preparedness, Crowley and his crew rely on timing for effective snow plowing and snow removal.

“Timing is key for us,” he said. “We basically don’t do anything until there’s 2 inches of snow on the ground.”

According to the village of Mahomet’s 2007 Snow Plowing Policy, the transportation superintendent must decide when to begin the operations. The policy provides four criteria for negotiating operation timing, which includes at least 2 inches or more of snow accumulation, problematic snow drifting, icy conditions that may “seriously” affect travel and the timing of the snow event in relation to the street use.

Mid-day snowfall, such as the one the village received on Friday, Dec. 29, provides the greatest difficulty for Crowley and his crew.

“The snows that hit in the middle of the days like this are a real challenge. That’s 12 to 14 hours of work,” Crowley said. “Sometimes we’ll need to shut down and keep going four to five hours later so that my crew can rest.”

The village’s snow removal operation is broken down into six street classifications. Arterial streets, such as Main Street, State Street, Division Street, among others, produce the highest amount of traffic flow with nearly 4,000 vehicles per day.

Collector streets are broken down into two categories. Averaging more than 3,000 vehicles per day, major collector streets carry traffic from the village’s minor streets to its arterial streets.

Minor collector streets yield “frontage” access to lots and provide steady traffic flow to adjoining “local access” streets. Minor collector streets average nearly 1,500 vehicles per day. Examples of collector streets include Country Ridge Drive, Dianne Lane and Union Street.

Sub-collector streets provide the same features as minor collector streets, but the traffic must have an “origin” or “destination” in the nearby neighborhood. Sub-collector street examples include Center Street, Peacock Drive and Turner Drive, and average roughly 750 vehicles per day.

Cul-de-sacs, which include both the radius and the streets, include dead-end streets that have an open end, which must be “terminated” at the other end with a “vehicular turn-around.” With limited traffic, these streets are generally plowed last.

“The plowing priority is based on street classification, meaning the most traveled streets that are going to be highest priority,” village Administrator Patrick Brown said.

“The way we have snow removal is similar to how we broke the town down,” Crowley added. “We have equipment in each of those areas.”

As for the remainder of the winter, Crowley expects an average 20-inch snowfall.

“I’m kind of expecting it to be like this,” Crowley said. “I’m looking at some long-range forecasts. The systems are what are called clipper systems that are coming down from Canada and giving us moisture. “We’ll probably have some 1- to 3-inch snows, some 2- to 5-inch snows and we might have one upper 6-inch event.”

The 17-year transportation superintendent believes the East Central Illinois area is in for an average winter.

“We haven’t had a winter so to speak in the last few years,” Crowley said. “I’m kind of guessing we’re going to have a winter this year.”

The worst snowfall event Crowley recalled working occurred during his two-year stint with Newcomb Township, where he experienced a 16-inch snowfall with winds up to 50 mph.

“The worst that I ever worked was the Christmas to New Year ’98 to ’99 snowfall; it was a nightmare,” he said. “When the storm hit, we went out with 6 inches of snow on the ground and we worked for 26 hours straight, then 20 hours, then 18 and then the hours kept dropping down.”

The late-’70s snowstorm was also not too far from the transportation superintendent’s recent memory. While only 4 or 5 years old, Crowley recalled his grandfather, who was a foreman, had prepared for the storm that stacked snow nearly 20 feet high.

“He would take a hot plate and a skillet to work,” Crowley added, “because it might be four or five days before he came home.”

Given the recent snowfall events and nearby traffic accidents, Crowley cautioned drivers to stay indoors, if possible, and to use extra precautionary measures if residents are out in the elements.

“If it’s going to be snowy or nasty outside and you don’t have to go anywhere, then stay home,” Crowley said. “If you do have to get out, allow yourself extra time to get anywhere.

“Make sure to allow yourself extra distance when coming up on other vehicles. Don’t pull out in front of our trucks or anybody else’s vehicle for that matter. Our trucks take longer to stop because they’re bigger.”

In addition to obeying winter driving safety, Crowley asked that Mahomet drivers utilize patience when out and about on the village’s streets during snowy or icy conditions.

“We’re on it and we’re trying the best we can,” he said. “There’s only so many of us and we’re doing everything we can to keep our streets as safe as we can.”

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