Clearing west central Minnesota’s roads is a high-tech venture that can, on occasion, border on perilous for MnDOT drivers
WILLMAR – Planning for how to respond to Sunday’s snowstorm began in earnest Friday at the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s District 8 headquarters in Willmar.
Denny Marty, MnDOT maintenance supervisor, was looking at weather forecasts to determine when to call crews in for the storm expected to begin Saturday night.
The storm wasn’t on schedule though, and Marty started making calls at 5 a.m. Sunday. An hour later 10 plows from Willmar, two from Madison, four from Montevideo and four from Granite Falls were given the go-ahead to begin their routes on 525 center line miles of roads across the region.
The West Central Tribune got to ride along on a plow driven by Rick Reigstad. He took the route from Willmar to Kerkhoven and back again. It was a path he repeated for hours, but the task was hardly routine.
The snow was light at first but then came in bursts of showers that made visibility increasingly difficult and piled up quickly on state highways.
Heading east out of Willmar on U.S. Highway 12 it was difficult to see where the edge of the road was.
After stopping in Kerkhoven to clear snow from the mirrors and heading back east on Highway 12, Reigstad’s path was blocked by a tow truck attempting to pull a pickup from a steep embankment after the vehicle had ripped through a metal guardrail.
No one was injured.
After talking with the tow truck driver, Reigstad continued on the route, now filled in with snow since he’d made a pass through 30 minutes prior in the other lane.
The truck Reigstad operates has three separate blades, including a side wing, and spits out sand and salt from beneath its frame. It also is challenging to operate. Reigstad has to be careful to avoid mailboxes. He also has to pull up the blades at railroad crossings and battle the force of the snow that tugs at the truck. Reigstad also knows it’s inevitable that a driver will at some point attempt to pass or pull out in front of his rig.
“This is white-knuckle driving,” he says with a quick grin. “All we can do is try to keep up and make the roads as safe as possible for the public.”
To accomplish this, Reigstad gathers and uses a slew of data on the temperature of the air and the road surface collected from other MnDOT plows and weather towers with sensors and cameras. An advanced technology knows as Maintenance Decision Support System, or MDSS, is also used and contains data from drivers that helps the department monitor visibility and road conditions.
A small computer is also located in the truck and boasts a color weather radar and the road conditions. The truck is also filled with constant radio chatter between the drivers.
“We have to multi-task,” Reigstad said.
The start of a route on a day like Sunday includes the “typical excitement of a major snow event,” Reigstad said. “We’ll start gearing down after 10 to 12 hours in the truck.”
Most of the drivers will be back in the trucks this morning.
As the drivers completed their routes, Marty split his time between driving the roads to get a first-hand look at the conditions and monitoring weather and road conditions from the office.
As the storm intensified, calls from plow drivers come at a rapid pace: One plow tore off a section of new guardrail; another driver reports zero visibility; several calls are taken regarding vehicles in ditches. Marty takes down the location and calls for a tow truck.
The MDDS technology can also be used to track exactly where the trucks are at an exact time, how fast they are traveling, and how much salt and sand the truck is applying. By combining that information with the road and weather data, Marty is better able to dispatch plows to where they’re most needed.
About half of the Willmar plows have the MDDS equipment.
As the old trucks are replaced, new vehicles will have the sensors and GPS equipment, according to Marty.
The data allows MnDOT to “fine tune” its response to snowstorms, Marty said.
With winds expected to continue today, that fine tuning could come in handy.