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As Snow Falls, Plows Give Some Side Streets Preferential (Salt) Treatment

Stan Jastrzebski

It’s fairly common knowledge that more well-traveled roads will see plows before residential streets do – it’s a function of trying to keep an entire city’s streets from becoming snarled with snowbound traffic.

But there’s more that goes into the equation which decides what streets receive salt and the edge of a plow blade first.

And it starts with making sure the plows can get on the road. At the West Lafayette street garage, Doug Perkins is using an ice pick on the salt spreader of one of the city’s plows.

Street foreman Dennis Steele has just brought his truck back in following a 12-hour shift, but for the end of the drive he hasn’t been able to spread much salt – it’s become so caked on the blade of the spreader that Perkins spend 15 minutes freeing the frozen blade from the very substance that’s used to try to un-freeze the roads.

Perkins says this kind of treatment becomes more common when the temperature dips below about 15 degrees.

But the ice pick isn’t enough. Perkins retrieves a small sledgehammer and chisel from the garage and picks away at the light blue salt and calcium chloride mixture for a few more minutes before Steele’s truck can get back on the street.

When we get in the cab, Steele doesn’t have a plan for where he’s going to go. But that changes almost instantly when a call comes in on the two-way radio -- a police car is stuck heading up Chauncey Hill on State Street.

The garage is just a couple blocks from State Street and when we arrive, both the police cruiser and a compact car have become stranded on the steep hill. So Steele reaches down to a pair of black knobs in the console between the front seats of the truck.

The same way some drivers reflexively use a stick shift to change gears, Steele watches the road as he moderates the speed his newly-unstuck spreader spins and as he toggles a pair of levers which move the heavy plow at the front of the truck up and down.

It takes two passes up the street before the lane can be cleared and it’s here we get to the slant of this particular story. Since West Lafayette has so many hills, those take priority for the street department. This leads to a conundrum in some places – hilly roads may be plowed, but flatter arterial streets leading off the hill remain covered in snow until later in the plowing rotation. The alternative, Steele says, is letting homeowners drive easily to a snow-covered hill that’s far more treacherous than their flat neighborhood street would be with the same amount of snow pack on it.

The department is also looking into new ways to clear the snow, especially because salt presents problems. It doesn’t work well if the temperature is in the single digits or below and recently-released environmental reports show the salt from winter plowing is raising the salinity in some northern U.S. rivers.

But West Lafayette Street Department Supervisor Doug Payne says there’s a tradeoff he has to manage:

“I don’t know if there is any product yet that is as good as what salt does,” Payne says. “People want results. They see six inches of snow and they want it in the grass, not on the roads – so they want it gone now. We would love to use anything that’s going to help the environment, but it’s just a matter of practicality.”

The department has adopted the use of beet juice, which melts snow and ice and is less harmful to the environment – it’s a treatment many cities have begun using in the last ten years. But as each new treatment comes along, Payne needs to find storage for the different applicants. He’s now got two six-thousand gallon tanks for beet juice and calcium chloride that he maintains.

And he says he’s regularly in contact with other street commissioners to find out if they’ve got new technology or treatments he hasn’t considered.

Until more come along, Dennis Steele will keep to the tried-and-true tandem of salt and a blade that he’s been using for the 20 years he’s plowed roads.

That may be cold comfort to environmentalists, but it’s comfort from the cold for motorists traveling through West Lafayette.