STEPHENS CITY — Preparations for sleet and snow begin in August for Virginia Department of Transportation officials.
On Tuesday, VDOT officials trotted out their equipment they will use to keep roads clear this winter and explained the ins and outs of keeping interstates, highways and byways safe for drivers.
Ken Slack, a VDOT spokesman, said keeping roads clear starts with preventative measures such as salt and brine to keep cars from packing the snow down onto the road. The tricky thing, Slack said, is that when rain is forecast to turn into snow, the pretreatments don’t do much good.
“If we’ve got a good handle on the forecast, that it's going to start raining, we won’t typically do the anti-icing because it gets washed right off,” he said. “It’s a waste of time.”
Drivers will begin to see the telltale signs of VDOT crews working even if they don’t see, or get caught behind, the VDOT trucks spraying the roads, followed by trailers to keep cars from overtaking them. White lines appear on the roads as the solution dries, signaling to drivers that winter weather is on the way.
The brine solution is good for making the snow easy to remove but it can be harmful to vehicles over time.
Larry Kibler, the superintendent of VDOT’s Stephens City headquarters, said the salt content of the brine, however, is less potent than the salt that crews put down on the roads.
Ed Carter, the VDOT administrator for the area, said that once the brine is dry it has close to no harmful effect on cars and tires.
Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah, Page and Clark counties make up VDOT’s Staunton District. As a whole, the district has 400 pieces of equipment and $14 million to keep the roads free and clear of snow.
Carter said last year’s snow-removal costs were around $19 million, $3 million more than what was budgeted.
Kevin Witt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said Tuesday that the region is forecast to receive slightly more than the normal amount of snow this year, and last year it received slightly less.
The Weather Service measures snow levels at airports, Witt said, and he reported a forecast of slightly more than 25 inches of snow, based on measurements taken at Dulles, Regan and BWI.
The “normal” range for the area, Witt said, is somewhere between 20 and 25 inches.
Witt said snowfall is forecast to increase as well as average temperatures.
Costs to remove snow don’t vary by severity, Carter said. Regardless of how much or how little it is snowing, crews have to take the same precautions and measures to make sure roads are safe.
“A 1-inch snow costs us just as much as a 6-inch snow in terms of mobilization,” Carter said. “I would rather have one big snow and get it over with.”
“When you have these several one-inchers or ice storms or something,” he continued, “districtwide it costs us about $1 million an event.”
Slack added a small ice storm could sometimes cost more than a large snowstorm because crews have to use different, more expensive, chemicals to melt the ice — a more difficult surface to drive on than snow.
When it does snow, crews have a range of vehicles to choose from to make everyone’s life easier — with exceptions for snow drifts being swept up into driveways.
Kibler said his crews can use a machine they haven’t had access to for the last two years because they didn’t have the proper permits.
The wing plow, which can clear snow 21 feet across compared to most plows clearing 10 feet, is back in action this year. Large plows like the wing plow are used on major highways, including Route 50 and Route 7, Carter said. The district has two wing plows, one in Stephens City and one in Berryville.
For more severe storms, usually around 8 inches or more, VDOT crews also have V plows that break through the thick walls of snow and have another plow following behind that pushes the drifts off to the side of the road.
Even with pretreatments and cleared roads, drivers need to watch out for cold spots and danger areas such as bridges and overpasses, which freeze before other parts of the roads do.
VDOT crews have sensors in their trucks that help them locate particular trouble areas and local knowledge goes a long way to keeping locals safe, Slack said, but there are still problems as many Virginians tend to forget how to drive in snowy conditions after so many months of warm weather.