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Area road crews ready when winter arrives
Martinsville Public Works Department Assistant Director Jeff Joyce stands in front of calcium chloride (in tank at left) and a barn holding salt for use on roads in inclement weather. Saturday is the start of “meteorological winter,” a three-month period when wintry conditions are most likely to occur. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
As the weather gets colder, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Martinsville Public Works Department crews are ready to work to rid the roads of any ice and snow that starts accumulating.
Winter officially starts Dec. 21 but Saturday — Dec. 1 — is the start of “meteorological winter,” basically a three-month period in which wintry weather is most likely to occur.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has proclaimed Dec. 2-8 as Winter Preparedness Week statewide.
Lisa Price Hughes, chief administrator at the VDOT office in Bassett Forks, said that office is “stocked up and ready” to hit the roads when needed.
The stockpile includes about 3,000 tons of salt, 4,000 tons of sand, 3,000 tons of “mixed abrasives” — salt and sand — and 43,000 gallons of “brine,” which is saltwater, according to Hughes.
The city has more than 200 tons of salt and plenty of calcium chloride on hand, said Assistant Public Works Director Jeff Joyce.
Salt is the main substance Martinsville uses to make icy roads less slippery. It mixes with some of the snow, creating a “liquid layer” between the rest of the snow and the road, he said.
Whereas water freezes at 32 degrees, salt begins to freeze at 20 degrees, he noted.
“We try to get it down immediately as it starts to snow,” Joyce said.
In the city, calcium chloride generally is applied to bridges, which often freeze faster than roads, he said.
Although VDOT treats roads mostly with salt and sand, brine is applied first if temperatures are warm enough, Hughes said.
“It delays bonding of the snow on the roadway,” she said, and “bides us some time” in getting crews ready for snow removal.
If roads already are icy when the VDOT trucks go out, “there’s not a lot we can do,” she admitted.
Plows and other snow removal equipment already has been attached to VDOT trucks and cleaned, Hughes said. She mentioned that her agency supplements its crews with private contractors in wintry weather.
A salt spreader has been mounted on a city truck already “in case we get a little bit of” unexpected frozen precipitation, but plows will not be hooked to trucks until meteorologists are forecasting wintry weather, Joyce said.
He said the most hazardous location in Martinsville during bouts of wintry weather usually is the hill on Liberty Street behind Liberty Fair Mall.
Other trouble spots include Northside Drive, Commonwealth Boulevard near Martinsville High School and Blankenship Road, officials have said.
City crews treat those locations first, then move to heavily traveled roads such as Commonwealth and Memorial boulevards before clearing residential streets, Joyce said.
In the county, VDOT focuses its attention first on primary roads — those numbered 600 and below — because they are the most heavily traveled, Hughes said. Examples include U.S. 220, U.S. 58 and Virginia 57.
Secondary roads — ones numbered 600 and above — are treated after the primary roads are in the best shape possible, followed by residential streets, she said.
No snow or ice is expected for the immediate future. In fact, the National Weather Service is forecasting highs in the 50s and 60s next week, according to its website.
But get ready. Another mild winter is not likely.
Indications are there will be more opportunities for low-pressure systems to track close to Virginia compared to last winter, according to Bill Sammler, a warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service.
“Temperatures are the wild card in the pattern that is setting up,” he said. “If we have cold temperatures with these southern low-pressure systems, then we could have more snow or messy mixed precipitation events.”
The Old Farmer’s Almanac — which claims an 80 percent accuracy rate for its long-range forecasts — is predicting the Martinsville area’s winter will be colder than usual with above-normal snowfall. The snow is expected to be heaviest from mid-December to early January, its website shows.