VIDEO: Staying Ahead of the Storm in St. Michael
Patch rode along with a MnDot plow driver as he cleared I-94 in St. Michael and Albertville Sunday afternoon.
Staying ahead of the storm and clearing what Mother Nature drops on the area is what Brad Vance does 12 hours a day.
Vance is a plow driver for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, District 3. The district includes St. Michael, Albertville, Rogers, and Monticello.
Patch rode along with Vance Sunday afternoon between 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., when the snow started to fall fast, and then tapered off.
The video above shows how Vance worked on Interstate 94 as a left lane plow driver, circling his route between Monticello and Rogers both east and west, over and over.
For ten years, he's been clearing state roads, salting icy patches, and keeping an eye out for unsafe areas. In his truck, he constantly communicates with other plow drivers over the radio. The Minnesota State Patrol also radios in road conditions. He knows the roads well, but with every storm and temperature, he changes his tactic to fit the needs of the roads.
The City of St. Michael plows Highway 241, even though it's a state road. MnDot pays the city to clear that road because they don't have enough drivers to cover it. MnDot will cover the highway at the city's request. Vance has plowed the highway many times, so he's familiar with it.
Five MnDot trucks plow Interstate 94 from Highway 241 to Clearwater. The circuit for the St. Michael area runs from Highway 241 in St. Michael to Monticello. The drivers work 24 hours a day before, during and after a storm.
"When people start complaining about how bad the roads are, they don't realize that the clean up really depends on the type of storm and temperatures," said J.P. Gillach, MnDot's communications and public affairs director for District 3. "We're doing everything we can to keep up with it."
Once a storm stops, MnDot expects roads to be clear within a day, Gillach said.
The December 2012 storm with heavy snowfall was difficult to clear because the roads had ice, then snow, then more ice, with low temperatures, he explained. This caused a lot of snow compaction on the roads.
"The ice literally froze to the pavement surface," he said, adding that when temperatures drop below 20 degrees, salt is much less effective on roads.
MnDot plow drivers prioritize plowing the roads more than ramps, Gillach said, because they have a higher volume of traffic.
He added that with improving technology, the operation is becoming more efficient.
"The roads don't get as bad as they used to," he said. "It's really a testament to how good the technology is. And it's a testament to how good these guys (plow drivers) are."
Driving in a storm
Gillach cautions drivers that the risk of a crash goes up when passing plows, especially when passing too close. Many motorists are unaware that the plows on the side of the trucks extend nine feet.
"We're not telling people how to drive," he said. "But they should use their common sense."
A misconception some drivers have during winter storms is that if they have a four-wheel drive vehicle, the roads are less slippery for them.
"If you hit ice, it doesn't really matter if you have four-wheel drive," he explained. "In weather like this, you can't really drive up to the speed limit."
He added that flashing lights of the plow indicate a work zone, where fines double for speeding tickets and traffic violations.