Keeping roads clear: How does Vt. measure up? - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Keeping roads clear: How does Vt. measure up?

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Winter road crews across Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Quebec have to deal with a variety of conditions, from snow to ice to sleet. Departments say they're always trying to do more with less.

"There's a perpetual tug of what people want for the conditions on the roads but how much do they want to pay with the cost that comes attached to it," said Alan Hanscom of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

Vermont has about 3,200 miles of roads to maintain, with 250 active plow trucks and in an average winter uses about 88,000 tons of salt. New Hampshire has about 4,600 miles to maintain, and owns about 300 trucks. But in the winter, the Granite State hires an additional 430 trucks to help plow and they use 146,000 tons of salt. So while they have about 45 percent more miles to clear, they have 196 percent more trucks and 67 percent more salt to maintain them.

VTrans says it would cost tens of millions of dollars for Vermont to add more trucks, staff and garages-- a cost deemed prohibitive.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Is it a question then of priorities?

Scott Rogers: Well again, that's something the Legislature would have to kick around, and they have in the past. You know, we only have so much money that comes in, and how do you want to spend it?

Money translates into resources. Plow truck routes are roughly two hours long across the region. But how often those plows run differs state to state. New York has two 12-hour shifts for plow drivers, so their coverage is constant through a storm. Quebec has a similar policy. Vermont and New Hampshire don't have the same staffing levels, so how many are out at any given time can vary and road conditions will, too, as a result.

"We do keep trucks running 24/7 during a storm, but the number of trucks on the road will change during a storm event so some drivers can go home and get some rest," Rogers said.

While all areas use regular road salt, New York and Vermont are both increasing the use of salt brine. Despite some driver complaints to the contrary, both departments say it is an effective tool to keep hard-pack snow from forming.

"We've been increasing our use of it every year, and I believe now every region of the state is using it as a pretreatment," said Beau Duffy from the New York Department of Transportation.

"Dry salt tends to bounce, so it will bounce into the ditch or it could get blown off by passing cars," Rogers said. "By adding salt brine, it helps the salt stick to the road, where it can be effective."

Quebec and New Hampshire are not using brine on a large scale. New Hampshire officials told us that's in part because of the temperatures. Brine is only effective to about 25 degrees before chemicals have to be added to make it work. Regular salt works for a bit lower than that.

"The rock salt is effective to about 20 degrees and not much colder than that; it just sits there and does nothing," Hanscom said.

And if it drops even lower, abrasives like sand or gravel have to be used. But they come with a price because they're harder to clean up afterward. However, new winter road treatments are on the horizon. New York's Thruway Authority is testing a beet juice and brine mixture. Quebec is also trying the beet juice in some spots, saying it works a lot like salt.

"We want to make sure that it's environment-friendly, we want to see if it is going to reduce the cost and we want to see if it's effective in all areas that we have here in Quebec," said Sarah Bensadoun of the Quebec Transportation Ministry.

And transportation officials also say drivers' experiences could be radically different depending on how close they are to the plow.

"It's always interesting because, when talking about winter roads, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," Rogers noted.

There are other ways drivers can find out about conditions on the roads. For instance in New York, plow operators report back conditions, which are then updated on the state's website. Vermont and New Hampshire use cameras to monitor road conditions. And in Quebec, they have 250 weather systems to help them monitor the roads.

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