It’s been a pretty tough winter already, and there’s still a few months more to go before things start thawing out.
But even with the cold and snow, the condition of the roads in Sherburne County has been pretty good so far.
“It was pretty slow at the beginning. We only plowed snow once in November,” says Sherburne County Maintenance Supervisor Marlin Marquette. “But we’ve been busy in December and it seems December has been colder than normal.”
There haven’t been many significant storms yet, but lighter snowfalls are still a nuisance to drivers.
“The amount doesn’t always matter. It takes about the same amount of time,” says Marquette. “The roads still have to be cleaned off.”
Most of the snowfalls so far haven’t lasted for more than 24 hours. So county plow drivers have been able to keep roads relatively clear. But storms that keep dumping snow over a few days can be a problem.
“It depends on how it snows,” says Marquette. “If it snows and it’s done before we go out, that helps. But if it’s a one, two or three-day event, that’s a lot of repetitive trips over the roads.”
Marquette says there isn’t a policy that determines when the crew goes out to plow the roads.
“We go out whenever we can make the conditions better. We don’t have a specific amount. It’s whatever the road conditions warrant,” he says. “If we get a half inch and it’s really slippery, we’re going to go out and try to clean them off and make sure we have salt or salt/sand at the intersections, hills, curves and railroad crossings.”
December was particularly cold in 2013, with lots of sub-zero evenings and a few days not much warmer. That makes it difficult for salt to melt ice so roads can be cleared.
“Typical road salt is good above 15 degrees,” says Marquette. “It will continue to work after that, but you have to use so much more that it becomes cost-prohibitive.”
Specially treated salt can work in temperatures as low as zero degrees. But Marquette says this winter, even that has been a challenge.
“So far it’s been pretty active and with the colder temperatures. We’ve been using some of our treated salt,” he says. “When it got really cold there for awhile we switched over to salt/sand. It has some treated salt in it but it’s more to get some grit and traction at the intersections. We’re not trying to melt everything, we’re just trying to make the intersections safe.”
Sometimes, the crew decides it’s better not to spread salt during windy conditions. Wind-blown snow can become patches of ice if it melts on the road, then freezes.
“It’s always a judgement call for the operators whether they want to put down salt. If you have salt on the road and there’s snow blowing across, it’s just going to start collecting there,” says Marquette. “When it gets cold in December and January, we try to keep as much salt off the roads as we can and keep it level so when the wind blows, it blows all the way across the road.”
The county has 409 miles of county roads and 38 bridges. All those roads and bridges are handled by 15 plow trucks and 15 drivers. Eight routes are covered from the Becker facility. The other seven routes are taken care of from the Zimmerman shop. The average rural plow route is about 30 miles. The longest is 41 miles - one way. When the bad weather hits, the crew has to be ready.
“Unlike MnDOT, we don’t have enough guys to run a night crew,” says Marquette.
So when a snowstorm hits, especially overnight, it’s up to Marquette to decide when to call in the crew.
“It’s always a judgment call - when can we start and still be able to get everything done,” says Marquette. “You hate to go out early because you don’t know how long a snow is going to last sometimes.”
That’s what happened on Christmas Eve when a snowstorm hit late in the day.
“The snow stared about 5:30. Then the question was, do we want to go out Christmas Eve at 10 at night or wait until it was completely over and start early?”
Marquette says he drove around to look at the road conditions and decided not to call in the crew.
“The roads were all passable and on some of the major roads where there was a lot of traffic, some of the snow had been blown off so there were bare wheel paths,” he says. “They were drivable.”
But that meant calling in the crew after the snow was finished - on Christmas Day. They began plowing Christmas morning at 2 a.m. and were done by 10.
“Everybody was available, they all came in and got the job done,” says Marquette. “Our guys have been really good about coming in when they’re needed. a couple of them had plans and they changed their plans to accommodate what we needed to do. We were still able to come in and do the roads and get everybody home for Christmas dinner.”