GREENFIELD — As any motorist can attest, not all roads are created equal when it comes to snow removal and how much salt is used.
While area street departments have large stashes of salt on hand to clear streets of ice and packed snow, the type of weather, type of road and money plays into how a street is handled.
Rural roads may only get salted at places where wintry weather can become especially hazardous, like hills and bridges. But city streets and state highways are pretty uniformly covered with salt because of their heavy use.
While the most heavily traveled roads get the most attention, the density of the snow and the temperature can also affect how quickly streets are cleared. Here is a look at how three local street departments handle winter weather.
Greenfield Street Department
Friday morning’s rush of snow, when many drivers were heading out the door to work, had Greenfield street crews clearing the roads and spreading salt.
“It was just one of those storms that came down really fast and hard,” said Jim Hahn, Greenfield street commissioner. “Not a whole bunch of snow, but it’s just the right amount that as soon as you drive over it, it gets really slick.”
But there’s plenty of salt on hand: the department has its maximum 1,500 tons of salt in storage, some of which was left over from last year’s mild winter.
“It’s going to take a couple of years for us to probably get back to the normal strategy of reordering every time there’s a storm,” Hahn said. “Right now, we’re kind of reordering every other storm because of that backup of salt.”
The city department clears 128 miles of streets within city limits. Most of them are two lanes but New Road has four lanes. With a budget this year of $105,000 for salt, Hahn said there’s cash on hand to reorder whenever it’s needed.
That’s just what he did after the mild blizzard Dec. 26. The city’s street department used roughly 500 tons of salt during the white-out conditions and the following days of clean-up. As a general rule, the department will spread salt on every street, Hahn said.
“If it’s snowing heavy, if we’re getting more than two to three inches at a time, I’ll say, ‘Hey, just hit the intersections and main roads,’” Hahn said. “Afterwards we can go back and hit everything, but we never leave anything undone.”
And while the department sometimes uses only salt, at other times sand is mixed with salt to make the substance go a little farther.
Hancock County Highway Department
While the city department spreads salt on all of the streets, that’s not possible for the department that cares for rural roads, said Hancock County Highway Engineer Joe Copeland.
The county highway department is responsible for clearing roads outside of cities and towns, except for state highways. There are 670 miles of county roads, but Copeland says that number can be doubled to determine how many times a truck must go down each road because all county roads are two lanes.
The county highway department has 400 tons of salt on hand right now, just short of its maximum 500 tons of storage. Still, the department has an additional 1,500 tons of a sand and calcium mixture.
Usually, Copeland said, the department mixes three parts sand with one part salt, but the department can “beef it up and go two-to-one” if the occasion calls for it.
But fewer than 10 percent of the county’s rural roads get completely covered with salt. Between 30 and 50 miles of roads are “hit solid” because of heavy traffic, Copeland said. The rest only get salted at trouble spots.
“It’s our policy that we’ve had for years, when we go out we hit all the bridges especially, intersections, curves and hills,” Copeland said. “Main roads, like CR 600W and 600E is to be hit solid, they’ll run the material all the way because of the amount of traffic. But (for) our back roads, that’s not the case. We wouldn’t have enough money or manpower or trucks.”
The department has $180,000 in its budget for salt and other melting material this year. Copeland said if the department covered every inch of rural roads with salt, that figure would have to skyrocket.
County commissioners Tom Stevens and Brad Armstrong said they rarely get complaints about the little amount of salt that is spread on most rural roads. The practice probably won’t change any time soon, they said, because if more money is spent on salt, less can be spent in warm months on road repairs.
“When you’re dealing with a limited budget, I’d much rather see a minimum effort put forth towards fighting winter storms, because that’s temporary instead of having money go towards what I consider more permanent, and that’s maintenance itself,” Stevens said.
The department used 95 tons of salt during the blizzard last month, but cleanup through the end of the month put an additional 180 tons of salt on rural roads.
Often, Copeland said the department has to rely on Mother Nature to make sure roads are cleared. Salt works better when the sun hits it, and when you’re talking about rural roads with little salt, that makes a big difference.
And sometimes blowing and drifting can also make it difficult to keep up, as Copeland can attest to with the December blizzard.
“The number of complaints is not necessarily related to the job we’re doing. I think it’s more related to the amount of snow we get,” Copeland said. “If we get a 2-inch snow, we don’t hear too much. If we get a 6- or 8-inch snow, then we’ll hear about it.”
Indiana Department of Transportation
The department that clears major thoroughfares like Interstate 70, Ind. 9 and U.S. 40 works differently compared to local departments.
The Indiana Department of Transportation has a Greenfield unit that mostly takes care of Hancock County’s state highways, but the unit also dips into Marion, Madison and Henry counties.
The unit has 1,652 tons of salt on hand, about half as much as it can store. But INDOT spokesman Harry Maginity said the department purchases more on an as-needed basis.
INDOT’s large district that covers east-central Indiana, including Marion County, has $2.4 million budgeted for salt this year. Last year’s mild winter left the east-central district with 46,000 tons of salt still in storage.
The amount of salt or other de-icing material that is used depends on many factors, including snowfall intensity, duration, temperature and wind speeds.
The department also uses brine, a salt and water solution to pre-treat bridges, overpasses and roadways. Maginity said that helps prevent ice from forming.
The city and county highway departments, on the other hand, don’t have the equipment to make brine, nor do they have money budgeted to buy the special equipment, Copeland and Hahn said.
About an inch of snow fell Friday morning during rush hour, and Maginity said the department pre-treated I-70, Ind. 9 and U.S. 40 with brine before spreading salt during the event.
“(Friday) at least it wasn’t a lot of snow, but the timing was the most difficult timing,” Maginity said. “We would have loved to see it come a little bit earlier or a little bit later. It put our plow trucks with blades down in the midst of traffic.”
Compared to rural county roads that only get salt on trouble spots, Maginity said state highways are so heavily traveled that salt must be placed consistently. Traffic and sunshine also help break down ice.
Maginity said each section of INDOT determines how much salt to use or when to pre-treat roads based on the weather forecast, temperature and wind conditions.
“Each subdistrict makes its own call; we handle it geographically and locally,” Maginity said.