Road crews scraping by for now

Cold strains trucks, snow taxes salt supplies

COLUMBIA COUNTY—Not as bad as some and worse than others.

That’s the assessment three highway bosses gave The Columbia Paper this week when asked how this winter stacks up so far with years past.

Columbia County Highway Division Director Bernie Kelleher, who’s seen winters of all shapes and sizes come and go in his 36 years on the job, said the winter of 2013-14 has been busier than last year, with more snow and ice-busting material used and more hours put in by the road crews who deal with it.

The county Highway Department that Mr. Kelleher has headed for 15 years employs 87 people. When snow and/or ice make it time to hit the road, 29 frontline trucks head out, each with two people aboard. In addition, there are seven foremen operating pickup trucks clearing intersections. Mechanics and support staff round out the team of about 70 responders.

“We got the job done” despite colder temperatures this year that have made salt alone ineffective for melting snow and ice on road surfaces, the county road chief said. “When it gets down to 10 degrees or lower, salt doesn’t work as well, it’s not as effective,” he said. That’s remedied by mixing salt with calcium chloride, which works at lower temperatures.

With a budget cycle that runs from January to January, Mr. Kelleher said snowstorms that occurred in November and December 2013 were covered under last year’s budget. In terms of remaining snow removal funds, he says, “I’ll be okay for a while.” But that could change depending on weather conditions this coming November and December; then he “could be looking at a shortfall.”

“We’ve had a lot of little storms” that have added up, said Mr. Kelleher noting, “years ago we had a lot of wind and a lot of snow, those were busier winters.”

In the north county Town of Chatham, Highway Superintendent Joe Rickert said it’s been tough to get the snow off the roads this year. The frost is deep, he said, and once moisture hits the road it bonds to the surface. Because “salt doesn’t work” in melting that bond, his crew has had to make a lot of trips over the road, “trying to get back to pavement,” he said.

Mr. Rickert said he’s coming to the end of the 800 tons of salt and 4,000 of sand he budgeted for this winter. He believes he has enough on hand to deal with about three more storms—one of which was expected to hit sometime Thursday.

Because it’s mid-February now and he knows March snowstorms can often be nothing to sneeze at, he’s hauling in another 1,000 tons of sand this week and has 150 tons of salt on order. He’s heard on the news there’s a salt shortage, but has not heard from his supplier, International Salt, that the company can’t fill his order. Shortages have been felt in New York City and points south.

Chatham highway crews were called to snow plow duty for the first time this winter on November 23, said Mr. Rickert. In December they were mustered 27 times, that’s 3 times above Mr. Rickert’s average for that month. In January, snowy roads beckoned 17 times, he said.

“You’ve got to go through the same motions whether you’ve got 1 or 10 inches of snow,” he said.

Of Chatham’s 97.35 miles of highway, only 40 miles is paved and it’s those unpaved roads that present the biggest winter headache.

While the season has brought some staggeringly low temperatures, it has also been marked by a couple of warm spells of up to 60 degrees accompanied by rain. With traffic continuing to travel those softened dirt surfaces the crown, or the center ridge, of those roads has been destroyed and “dips and dives” created. Those drainage-compromised conditions were aggravated by the resurgence of cold and frost, a set of conditions that “shoves the dirt upward” leaving a road surface that’s “tough to clean off,” said the highway boss, who noted that salt is used sparingly on dirt roads so as “not to make mud.

“Salt creates heat, draws moisture, pulls the frost out and creates mud,” he explained.

Those freeze-thaw conditions have also set the stage for “an unbelievable mud season,” said Mr. Rickert, who has been with the department for 28 years, the last 14 as chief.

Mechanical breakdowns in the Chatham fleet of eight dump trucks, three one-ton trucks and three pickups have fortunately been minor this winter, but employees have been bombarded by the flu and colds that have “gone through the garage like crazy.”

While he has seen winters that were a lot worse, this year cold has been the real kicker, he said.

In the southeast corner of the county, Ancram Highway Superintendent Jim MacArthur said this winter has been a lot worse than the last two or three. By the time he pays his bills at the end of this month, his snow removal budget will be shot.

Last year he spent half of his $60,000 snow removal budget on winter and at the end of the season had enough money left over to buy a six-wheel International plow truck for about $32,000.

This year he has spent all the snow removal money on winter and there is still more to come, Mr. MacArthur said.

His current supply of sand and salt is enough to handle four or five more storms, after that “it’s dry sand.”

Like his Chatham counterpart, Mr. MacArthur has an order in for salt, which he placed a week ago last Monday.

Though he has not heard anything from his supplier, Mr. MacArthur said while the salt company is headquartered in Pennsylvania, salt is delivered here from the Port of Albany, where it arrives on barges. But this year due to the ice, the barges can’t get up the river, said the highway boss, leaving him to consider how he might secure some of the product from the Ithaca salt mines in a pinch.

In a typical winter, Mr. MacArthur uses 2,000 tons of sand and 400 tons of salt to keep the roads clear. Five plow trucks and one pickup staffed by five fulltime and two part-time employees handle the job.

Equipment problems have not been an issue for him this winter, though Mr. MacArthur said he has heard from other departments that have had difficulties with fuel “gelling up” in the trucks due to the cold.

Ancram highway crews were summoned on 18 days in January to plow and treat the 32 miles of paved and 28 miles of dirt roads in town. Depending on the storm duration they may make three or four trips over the same terrain for each storm.

Though the town currently has 28 miles of dirt roads, Mr. MacArthur said that will change about the second week in March, when he will have “28 miles of mud.”

Hoping for a warm-up soon, he said, “It wouldn’t be so bad if the sun would come out after a storm and melt everything.”

Mr. MacArthur does see a light at the end of the tunnel and has a countdown in progress.

“Let me put it to you this way,” he said, “1 year, 11 months, 17 days” till retirement.

To contact Diane Valden email .

 

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