Fighting snow and ice Maintaining Virginia's 56,101 miles of roads requires hard work, patience

When ice and snow cover the roads, most truckers know it's time to pull over and wait for the weather to clear. That's not the case for the Virginia Dept. of Transportation's (VDOT) fleet.

VDOT's ubiquitous orange trucks and equipment go into action when winter is at its worst. Its vehicles must sally forth to do battle with the elements across 56,101 miles of roads and highways so truckers and travelers alike can keep moving.

"We have to go out; we don't have an option," says Erle W. Potter, equipment division administrator for VDOT's fleet, who manages all aspects of the 31,500-unit fleet, which incorporates everything from lawn mowers to tandem-axle dump trucks.

Potter is but one manager among 154 spread out across Virginia. They work behind the scenes to make sure the crews who repair and pave roads, clear them of snow, install and replace highway signs and lights, and keep more than 12,325 bridges in shape have reliable vehicles and equipment.

"We try to provide a quality piece of equipment and keep it in the best operating condition possible," he says.

That can sometimes be a tough job for VDOT's 500-plus mechanics who work out of 83 maintenance facilities across the state. Even with a maintenance budget of $70 million, it can prove a daunting task, says Potter.

VDOT, along with every other state transportation department, knows its equipment must perform in extreme situations or traffic on the roads will grind to a halt. "Because our type of operation means being involved in emergencies, we have to keep our equipment in top shape, all the time," says the 29-year VDOT fleet veteran. "It has to be ready to go - period."

RUNNING THE SHOW VDOT's fleet management structure is a little unusual, as it operates in both a centralized and decentralized fashion. Potter works in the central office with 26 other division administrators. VDOT also has an equipment manager in each of the agency's nine districts who reports directly to a district administrator.

"The district-level equipment managers are in charge of day-to-day operations and fleet readiness, while my job is to establish policies and procedures and coordinate strategic efforts," he explains.

Each of the nine districts within the state is made up of three to six residencies. Each residency, in turn, is made up of from one to four counties.

In this mix of duties, Potter acts as the point of contact for the divisions and districts within VDOT that use the fleet's vehicles and equipment.

One of the toughest aspects for Potter and his staff revolves around vehicle specifications. As a state agency, VDOT must use a public bid system when it purchases new equipment. "Sometimes, brand X will meet the specs, but not hold up on the job," Potter says. "But you must accept it because it is the lowest bid that meets those specifications."

Getting equipment on the front end is important when it comes time to sell it, he adds. "If it's in good running condition, we get more money for it," Potter says. "We then take that money and roll it back into our operation; it helps us reduce our costs." Sales of used equipment brings in about $1million a year for VDOT.

The key is knowing when to get rid of equipment, which is well before it's been run into the ground, says Potter. "A lot people think you should run a piece of equipment until the wheels fall off, until it just won't run anymore," he says. "That's just not true, because if you wear it out completely and go out to sell it, you don't get anything for it."

Potter says selling equipment also saves on maintenance dollars. "Many people don't realize that if you replace a vehicle today, you save the maintenance dollars you'd spend on it in the future," he says.

"If you have $40 million in new equipment requests and cut that back to $20 million, most people think you've saved $20 million. But they're wrong," Potter explains. "That doesn't account for the additional maintenance money you'll put into it, as well as the money you won't get since you'll be selling the equipment when its condition is inferior."