The snow keeps coming

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No matter whether a road is wet, slushy or snow packed today, road surfaces will mostly likely turn to ice tonight and tomorrow morning. Air and pavement temperatures will be in the teens, which makes salt much less effective. We’ve said it before but we need to say it again, stay home. Let road crews continue to remove snow without vehicles impeding the process.” –Administrator Neil Pedersen, Maryland State Highway Administration

It’s been quite a winter ride for us in the Mid Atlantic states – and it ain’t over yet. About another foot of snow is currently hitting us, combined with strong gusting winds (from 20 to 45 mph) that will surely force electric utility crews out into the freezing maelstrom.

These conditions, of course, are every day winter fare for many folks living in places such as Montana, Minnesota, etc. Yet those states invest in the equipment, salt supplies, and personnel necessary to do battle with Mother Nature’s wintry side. Down here in the Mid Atlantic region, we ain’t used to this – and we don’t budget for it. That’s why it gets so freaky in these parts.

[Here’s a view of what this latest wintry blast looks like in Northern Virginia.]

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) estimates it will remove about 500,000 tons of snow from northern Virginia roads over the next several days – the fallout from two big back-to-back blizzards.

[Here’s the technical formula VDOT uses to arrive at the number: take 17,000 lane miles in northern Virginia , multiply by 5,260 feet/mile (calculated by 10 feet avg. lane width multiplied by 2 feet snow depth), divide by 27 (to get cubic feet) and that all equals 66,237,037 cubic feet. Then 66,237,037 cubic feet multiplied by 15 lbs. per cubic foot divided by 2,000 to convert into tons equals 496,778 tons of snow removed from roads. Whew! My head hurts!]

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Crews and equipment finishing up snow removal in southern Virginia – around the Commonwealth’s capital in Richmond and around the Hampton Roads area, which experiences less snowfall – are heading to northern Virginia to assist 1,900 trucks working to get roads cleared.

VDOT said most of the new arrivals – mainly big dump trucks – from the southern region are going to focus on clearing 9,000 lane miles of subdivisions and side streets in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. That’s because the hundreds of 4x4 pickup trucks VDOT uses in northern Virginia subdivisions for a typical four- to six-inch storm are inadequate to handle the frozen and compacted, deep snow covering most neighborhoods, the agency said.

Snow drifts in some areas are even higher than the subdivision plows, meaning big Class 8 dump trucks are too large to fit through neighborhoods, so VDOT said its crews are using special equipment such as graders, bucket loaders, tandems and backhoes – a very slow and cumbersome process at best, the agency admitted.

Unlike smaller snowfalls, crews are also hauling snow from areas where there is simply nowhere for plows to push, such as along major highways – the Beltway and the I-95/395 high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, where concrete barriers prevent traditional plowing. So VDOT is using large trailers to haul away the white stuff.

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The Maryland State Highway Administration (MSHA) is warning that many roads, including sections of interstates, such I-95 and I-495, are still snow packed, so motorists need to remain on alert for varying conditions. Without warning, the agency said, main travel lanes may be narrowed or completed eliminated by encroaching snow. Along secondary roads, especially in urban areas, not all lanes will be open and turn lanes are restricted or piled with snow.

MSHA is also facing the torturous process of removing snow pack, with crews using front end loaders to scrape the ice off the pavement surface and break it up, while plow truck drivers will push the chunks to the side. And even though salt is still being applied to the roads, until temperatures climb above 25 degrees, its effectiveness will be limited.

[It’s amazing how much salt costs, too – for example, in fiscal year 2008, MSHA spent over $46.4 MILLION to buy 201,401 tons of road salt. I’m in the wrong business!]

In the end, a long, slow job remains before us to clear all this white stuff outta here so things can get back to normal. Now, time to break out the icy hot and get back to shoveling!

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