My View: ODOT preps year-round for winter storms
This is the time of year, of course, when all the equipment, all the training, and all the long hours bear fruit at the Oregon Department of Transportation.
When a storm hits the Portland area — or anywhere in Oregon — our crews are ready. They operate on 12-hour shifts with crews out on the streets 24 hours a day.
Our preparations before and during winter storms involve a lot of logistics, like keeping equipment maintained, making sure our various maintenance operations coordinate with one another, and making sure we get crews, equipment and materials where they're most needed.
But the preparations for our winter operations go on year-round. Our crews have their jobs, but winter is never far away.
They have to be trained to operate that heavy winter equipment, not just the plows and deicer trucks but those monster snow-blowers we use up on Mount Hood and other mountain passes. They need proficiency in best management practices for handling the salt, sand and deicer.
One off-season wrinkle involves trees. We have targeted plans on where we can cut back trees that might threaten a road in high wind or heavy snow.
The Eagle Creek Fire was more than two years ago, but we're still checking the area carefully year-round and removing trees that could endanger a road during high winds in the Columbia River Gorge.
This remains a problem because, in some areas, the fire removed the underbrush that helps anchor the trees to the ground. When that's gone, the trees are in greater danger of falling.
Our biggest obligation is to the public. When a winter storm hits, we do everything we can to keep the roads clear, passable and safe for the prepared driver. Our goal is to make sure people can safely use the roads — even if the going is slow.
Sometimes snow or ice or both overwhelm our ability to keep up. Then we just keep going. Our crews work hard to plunge right into the worst that winter can throw at us.
We deploy four primary tools to combat winter storms.
• Plows. These are the most effective tool for clearing accumulated snow from the roads. Don't pass plows on the right. Nobody wants to get hit by all that debris plows inevitably shove off to their right, which can include rocks or tire chains.
• Liquid deicer. We use magnesium chloride with a rust inhibitor, which inhibits the bond between the road surface and snow or ice. This tool can be used before a storm hits, but not when we expect rain because it just washes off the road.
• Sand. This helps improve road traction during winter precipitation but is a burden to crews because it has to be handled so frequently. This includes pickup, storage, loading onto trucks, applying and cleaning up after.
• Salt. An effective tool but only one of our winter tools. It's not the magic cure-all for winter weather, and we use it at the minimum amount necessary to get the job done because of potential environmental risks. We apply the least amount needed for the situation, and we mix it with deicer to limit bounce and help activate the salt properties.
We're always pleased when scary winter storm forecasts aren't as bad as feared. We don't get the headaches and traffic problems caused by winter storms, but we also save money.
We have about 280 maintenance workers in the Portland area working with a winter budget of $5.1 million. We maintain stores of salt, deicer and sand, much of it centered on the east side of the Portland area because we need more supplies at the higher elevations. Some winters we don't need much at all, while we see storms during other winters that seriously reduce our supplies.
On the weekend of Jan. 11-12, for example, Mount Hood got pounded by snow with about 3 feet falling at Government Camp and 5 feet at Timberline Lodge. Our crews were working around the clock with all our winter tools despite all that snow, poor visibility, falling trees and spinouts. The skiers loved it, though, and braved the winter conditions and slow travel to hit the slopes. The rest of the Portland area saw minimal use — if any — of their supplies that weekend.
Mac Lynde is ODOT's deputy Delivery and Operations Division administrator. Comments can be directed to 888-Ask-ODOT.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.