FAIRMONT– Large amounts of snow, extremely cold temperatures and high wind speeds have resulted in quite the winter so far in Minnesota. The Martin County Highway Department has been busy trying to keep up and ensure that county roads remain clear.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is responsible for the interstate system and cities are responsible for their roads. Even townships have their own plows and schedules and each county is responsible for its roads.
County Engineer Kevin Peyman shared that, in Martin County, there are 512 miles of county road to maintain, 272 of which are paved and 240 that are gravel.
When the gravel roads aren’t frozen, they’re softer so having trucks on them will do more harm than good. Because of this, for the first few snow falls, trucks usually don’t go down gravel roads but the motor graders do. The same is true when it starts to warm up closer to spring.
Martin County has 16 snow plow beats, 11 are trucks and five are motor graders. While Martin County has just one snow plow crew, when it’s needed, all 16 will be out clearing snow. Sixteen units covering 512 miles equates to an average of 32 miles per snow plow beat.
The one crew works day time hours, typically an 8 to 12 hour shift, beginning in the morning through the afternoon. If it snows overnight, the crew will go out as early as 5 a.m. but is not out at night time.
“Even if it’s a common event without a ton of wind, it’s normal to have to plow a road four times, twice in each direction,” Peyman said.
However, wind is by far the the most complicating factor. The high winds that the county and much else of the region experienced in the days leading up to Christmas Day created several issues.
The combination of wind and snow creates visibility problems and Maintenance Superintendent, Dustin Splinter, said visibility is the biggest reason that plows are pulled.
Peyman said that around Christmas, there wasn’t really that much snow, but it was so windy that as soon as the roads were plowed, snow blew back onto the roads and created drifts.
“You’re fighting a battle you’re not going to win so how long do you keep chasing those same areas? It’s not safe with low visibility and when it’s that cold,” Peyman said.
People should use caution when traveling on roads near a snow plow. Splinter pointed out that they actually have less visibility than other vehicles because the plows are always in the cloud they’re creating. He advised that people should stay out of the cloud when traveling near plows.
“If you can’t see the plow, the plow can’t see you,” Splinter said.
It’s also not recommended to pass a snow plow. Peyman said people should wait until there’s a safe time to pass, such as an intersection.
The decision to pull plows is made by each agency. MnDOT makes its own call and the county makes its own call, though conversations often take place.
“The counties to the West of us, we’re on a group text so we’re constantly talking about what we’re seeing… usually two or three counties are pulling (plows) at the same time,” Splinter said.
As for closing roads, the Sheriff’s Office makes that call though Peyman said his department works well with the Sheriff’s Office so those two departments are also in constant contact.
“Generally if the state closes their roads, we close our roads at the same time. Otherwise if the state closes the interstate, everyone piles onto our roads and we have vehicles stuck,” Peyman said.
Salt is another tool that can be used to combat snow. However, state statute says that road authorities other than high-speed arterial roadways, like the interstate system, can use salt or other chemicals only at places like hills and intersections.
“The reason for that is environmental. They don’t want all the salt getting in the lakes and it can cause issues with vehicles, too,” Peyman said.
He said that the county generally salts around stop signs, hills and curves. Once in a while it will spot sand certain areas on roads.
It also should be known that if it’s very cold, salt won’t work. On the very cold days around Christmas, salt didn’t do anything to help the roads.
“Salt can make it worse because it gets a little bit of moisture on the road. It doesn’t melt it but makes it a little wet and the blowing snow sticks more and gets it more slipperier. Salt can do more damage than good,” Peyman said.
Right now, Splinter said one of the biggest hazards they deal with is people pushing snow across the road and piling it at the end of their driveway near their mailbox. Pushing the snow across the road can cause a snow bank which blocks the road.
“That road would have been clear if they didn’t do that. That’s a huge issue we have now,” Splinter said.
He said instead of piling the snow along the road, people should push it back into their yard and away from the roadway.
Peyman pointed out that this is more of an issue in rural areas where they have more yard space to put their snow. In the city the situation is different as people are often limited as to where they can go with their snow.
Both Peyman and Splinter agreed that this year the area has seen more snow, and earlier in the season.
“We didn’t plow this much snow in the last two years combined,” said Splinter.
Peyman added that in the last few years they haven’t had to go back and push snow back in order to make more room for future snow falls, but this year they’ve already gone back to push back snow twice.
“We’re already running out of space ourselves. That’s why not piling snow by your mailbox is critical. It’s causing issues,” Splinter said.