Road crews brave storms to make streets safe

Before most drivers take a deep breath and steer their vehicles onto storm-whitened winter roads for the morning commute, a small army of public employees have been there first, usually, to make the roads as passable as possible.

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks

Gerald Woodard, Highway maintenance worker for the state highway department, adds oil to a road grader Thursday in a workshop in Clovis.

These are the state, county and city road crews who rush into the storm to spread salt, sand and cinders or plow snow off the roadways as soon as they know things are getting rough.

The largest share of that work belongs to the crews of New Mexico Department of Transportation's District 2. The district maintains about 7,500 miles of U.S. and state roads in eight southern and eastern New Mexico counties, making it the largest of the state's road maintenance districts, according to Ralph Meeks, District 2's assistant district engineer for maintenance.

District 2 covers Curry, Roosevelt, De Baca, Lea, Eddy, Chaves, Otero and Lincoln counties, plus small parts of Torrance, Socorro and Guadalupe counties.

The district's 16 squads of road repair crew members alternate on-call duties, but if snow is sticking to the roads, others join the effort shortly thereafter, as needed, Meeks said.

The responding crews, he said, generally go without hesitation. "They're usually happy for the extra work and extra pay," Meeks said. "We really can't pay these people what they're worth."

The crews start loading their salt-and-sand trucks, which are equipped with snowplows, as soon as they learn that bad weather is in the forecast, Meeks said.

In 2012, District 2 crews spread 12,550 tons of salt, usually mixed with twice as much in cinders, on state roads and highways, said Monan Arnett, spokeswoman for the district. The district spent $1.5 million on winter road work last winter.

For the current winter, District 2 purchased 2,677 tons of salt for about $103,400, added to more than 11,400 tons on hand. The current winter's road work budget has not changed from last year.

In Curry County, David Corbin, road maintenance foreman, said he mobilizes his snow and ice-clearing crews when police notify him that driving is getting hazardous. He said he makes sure he knows who among his 14 crew members is available if a winter storm is on the way, and who will be called first.

Priorities in Curry County are roads in front of homes, school bus routes and mail routes, he said. Then the roads that convey ranchers to cattle are cleared, salted and sanded. The extra hours, he said, are compensated by overtime pay or compensatory time at time-and-a-half.

In Roosevelt County, Road Superintendent Ricky Lovato said he conducts a personal road inspection before he calls out crews.

"I check the roads," he said, "then I decide." His decision, he said, includes which of the county's 15 road repair workers to send into action.

If crews are mobilized, they use motor graders to push snow off of county roads.

The first priority, he said, is school bus routes, even into the cities of Portales and Texico. Next are the county roads ranchers use to get to their cattle.

The extra effort earns Roosevelt County road crew members compensatory time at time-and-a-half, Lovato said.

In the city of Clovis, Public Works Director Clinton Bunch said, crews head for two places right away when the snow starts to get thick and sticky. One is the overpass, where Prince Street crosses the railyards south of First Street, and the roundabout at Norris Street and Llano Estacado Boulevard.

Larry Hall, the street superintendent, monitors the weather closely and makes sure he knows the availability of the 16 street crew members when the weather starts to turn, Bunch said. Police will notify Hall when snow starts making the driving hazardous.

Crews deposit strips of sand and salt every hundred yards or so on major city streets, Bunch said. Traffic spreads the salt and sand evenly over the roadways.

The first cars, he said, "see the sand and know to start slowing sooner to stop at the intersections," Bunch said.

"Everybody comes in at a minute's notice," Bunch said of his street crews. "They're always willing to help out in a storm."

In fact, he said, many city employees can get involved in the effort to make the streets safe during and after winter storms, even when the effort requires 24-hour-a-day continuous effort.

"That includes sanitation and parks department workers, too," he said.

When roads are at their worst is when the snow- and ice-clearing crews have to get to work most urgently. Do things get in their way?

Meeks said he remembers only one time in the past two years when conditions temporarily got the better of his crews.

During a severe cold snap, he said, some diesel trucks were not kept on idle as the temperature dropped. As a result, Meeks said, the "diesel fuel gelled up." That created a delay, he said, while key parts were heated enough to get the trucks going.

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