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On the road with MoDOT: West reporter gets a first-hand look at winter readiness

By: Jim Erickson

MoDOT drivers Larry Johnson [left] and Steve Luden check the tension on tie-down straps on the back of a snow plow during a winter readiness drill.

Winter is coming. But even before the first snow falls, there’s a lot that must take place behind the scenes to keep West County’s state highways navigable.

One example of the preparations involved came earlier this month when the Missouri Department of Transportation held a statewide readiness exercise. More than 3,200 MoDOT employees who work in winter operations, including all maintenance crews and 1,500 trucks at locations throughout the state, took part in the drill.

Emergency communications systems also were tested.

One MoDOT location participating in the exercise was the operation at Ballas Road just north of Interstate 64. It is responsible for state highways in much of West County and the area east of Interstate 270 to as far as Hampton Avenue in St. Louis City. In addition to I-64, between I-270 and the Daniel Boone Bridge, and portions of I-270 and I-170, the state roads include parts of Route 141, Olive, Clarkson, Ladue, Manchester and Lindbergh.

When you are dealing with snow and ice on roads, the work involved is measured in lane miles, rather than simple mileage between starting and ending points. Thus, Art Stout, the building superintendent at Ballas, estimated there are about 200 lane miles on the section of I-64 included in his territory.

Where those roadways cross into territories maintained by other MoDOT locations, there is an overlap area to eliminate any possible gaps. For example, crews from the Ballas location actually go across the Boone Bridge to the Research Park Circle exit in St. Charles County.

During a major weather event when it’s “all hands on deck,” the 19 people working out of the Ballas facility can be increased by as many as a dozen MoDOT office employees, all of whom are required to have the appropriate commercial driver license to operate the department’s equipment.

An important aspect of the readiness exercise is providing these occasional drivers, as well as other new employees, “the opportunity to drive a snowplow over some of their proposed routes so they are aware of obstacles and obstructions [such as curbs and raised islands] that might be hidden in a storm by snow or ice,” said Becky Allmeroth, state maintenance engineer.

After a question-answer session with Stout, West Newsmagazine climbed aboard a MoDOT snowplow with drivers Larry Johnson and Steve Luden for a round-trip on I-64 to the Research Park Circle turn-around point. As with most all personnel at the Ballas location, Johnson and Luden are long-time MoDOT employees. Johnson, who lives in the Pacific area, is going on 33 years of service while Luden, a Ballwin resident, has nearly 10.

Except for training sessions, MoDOT sends only one driver with each snowplow; however, vehicles go out in pairs, operating in tandem for more efficient and effective coverage. Virtually all the department’s vehicles are equipped with automatic transmissions, no doubt making life easier for the office personnel who may drive them at most just a few times each year.

The vehicle used for the test run had a 12-foot plow controlled by a floor-mounted stick between the driver and passenger seats. A console on top of another floor mount, just to the right of the plow control, governed the operation of a salt spreader on the back of the truck.

The salt bed was empty for the exercise but could have been filled quickly with a couple of multi-ton scoops from a front-end loader. A 2,400-ton salt dome at the Ballas location had been filled earlier this year and was ready for use. During the previous comparatively mild winter, the salt dome didn’t come close to emptying out.

This year for the first time, salt going into the dome was mixed with a brine solution and a corn-based liquid known as Ice Ban®. Among other things, Ice Ban is touted as being environmentally friendly and causing less corrosion.

While their years of experience have provided a storehouse of observations and fine points about winter weather, driving conditions and efficiencies for covering their assigned routes, Johnson and Luden noted one point that might not be thought about by a casual observer.

“The camaraderie that exists here is amazing,” Luden said. That spirit translates into a teamwork effort and friendly rivalries between other MoDOT locations and even between the work shifts at the Ballas location, he added.

During major weather events, MoDOT road crews work 12-hour shifts around the clock until the emergency period is over.

Regardless of weather condition, the common denominator that constantly prevails is safety, both men agreed. “Safety is talked about around here all the time,” Luden stated.

Their observations over the years have convinced them there’s little difference between the way truckers and passenger car motorists operate when driving conditions are poor.

“They [both truck drivers and those in automobiles] always want to get ahead of you and it seems everyone has a schedule that they are on,” Luden observed.

Johnson and Luden’s advice to all drivers in bad weather is simple: “Slow down, be patient and give us room to do our work.”

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