Winter is coming. As the temperature drops, the weather is changing. We have already received light dustings of snow; while it was not enough to cause region-wide delays and power outages, it marks a time of preparation for the Public Works Departments in state and local townships.
When snow enters the forecast, crews fill their trucks with salt and prepare for the incoming storm. According to a Lower Merion Township official, “sometimes they pre-salt smaller side streets” during heavier storms.
Crews usually spread a wetted salt brine on busier roads. Salt is more effective when it is crushed into the pavement, so crews limit the amount spread in low traffic areas. Instead, they spread an anti-slip mix (aggregate, cinders, etc.), which aids traction but does not melt snow and ice.
However, crews do not always follow this plan. They will not spread anything if the forecast calls for rain before snowing because it would be washed off. Similarly, they will not spread additional material if enough remains from previous storms.
When the forecasts call for greater amounts of snow, “the preparations behind the scenes [change] as far as how many drivers versus how many spare drivers we have,” according to the Lower Merion Township official.
Lower Merion has nine snow districts, each with approximately seven trucks. They typically schedule one driver and one spare driver per shift, but they may assign two during heavier snow storms, just to make sure that every truck is helping clear the roads.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) schedules at least one mechanic for each facility, in case equipment malfunctions. They also station trucks near busy highways to clear the roads as soon as precipitation begins to fall. The process for treating and clearing the roads does not change, just the number of people working.
Once it starts snowing, crews “plow the roads until it stops snowing, until the roads are clear.” They start with the busiest roads, and work until every street is cleared.
Township fleets clear all township and county-owned roads, whereas PennDOT maintains the larger, state-owned roads. For example, Haverford Township cares for 132 miles of township roads, such as Haverford Road, while PennDOT clears West Chester Pike (Route 3). PennDOT also cares for local highways, such as the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) or the Blue Route (I-476).
“[Lower Merion Township has] on-call crews twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, that are prepared for pretty much any emergency that can potentially happen.”
As for other emergencies, such as downed trees and power outages, crews cannot do much in terms of preparation. However, “[Lower Merion Township has] on-call crews twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, that are prepared for pretty much any emergency that can potentially happen.”
These types of emergencies may be expected, but crews cannot know when and where they will happen.
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