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Low temps, as much as snow, challenge road crews

By Steve Harrison, Joe DePriest and Adam Bell
sharrison@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/29/08/29/xvfSE.Em.138.jpeg|201
    Davie Hinshaw - The Charlotte Observer
    An abandoned car that spun off the road on Carowinds Boulevard.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/29/07/02/Uoj3E.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/29/07/02/NaB2o.Em.138.jpeg|210
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    As night starts to fall and the snow starts to pile, neighbors on 5th St. NW in Hickory start to congregate on one of the best hills in town.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/29/07/02/4S4Zs.Em.138.jpeg|201
    - Davie Hinshaw, dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
    Ice covers Baybrook Drive at Highway 51 in Charlotte early Wednesday. A winter storm dropped 1-2 inches of snow across the region, and below-freezing temps overnight has left ice in many places.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/29/10/47/U5fzf.Em.138.jpg|209
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Cousins Jelerion Dickey 8 (left), Yazarhi Mason 10 (right), make snow angels in the front yard at their home in Gastonia,both attend Lowell Elementary School and are enjoying a snow day on Wednesday Jan. 29,2014.

Tuesday’s light snow wasn’t particularly challenging for Charlotte-area road crews – but frigid temperatures were, as they rendered some de-icing methods ineffective.

Danny Pleasant, director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, said CDOT began applying calcium chloride to trouble spots such as bridges because overnight temperatures fell below 20 degrees, making salt and brine less effective.

“When temperatures are much lower it presents challenges for us,” Pleasant said. “The salt effectiveness has a bottom end.”

At a Wednesday noon news conference, Saleem Khattak, the city’s street superintendent, said the city’s de-icing efforts were “excellent.”

With crews working “30 hours straight,” he said the city had treated all of the city’s top-priority streets on Tuesday and early Wednesday morning. By Wednesday afternoon they were working on lower-priority streets and then streets in neighborhoods.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is responsible for the region’s busiest roads, including interstates, which were drivable Wednesday morning.

The city began applying salt brine on about 1,000 lane miles of major roads early Tuesday. It then switched to rock salt at 3:30 p.m., when snow began to fall.

There are about 5,200 lane miles in the city.

Khattak said that salt is effective only to 18 degrees. Once it gets colder, other de-icing methods like calcium-chloride-treated salt are used.

Even though the air temperature is below freezing, the surface temperature of many roads was above freezing Wednesday afternoon, due in part to friction from tires.

Khattak said CDOT crews would continue to work Wednesday through nightfall because water on some streets would re-freeze, starting at sundown.

From 4 p.m. Tuesday to 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police responded to nearly 500 calls about vehicle wrecks. Seventy-eight people were injured, according to the city.

In Gaston County, N.C. DOT engineer Johnny Murdock remembers seeing snow falling – only a fine mist.

“I thought, ‘Oh me, oh me,’ ” he recalled. “This stuff is going to freeze on top of the snow.”

Murdock said the thin ice crust along with temperatures plunging into the teens brought extra challenges to DOT crews trying to make roads safe for travelers.

“Every storm is a little different,” Murdock said. “When it gets below 22 or 23 degrees, nothing works.”

In Gaston, crews began treating Interstate 85, primary roads and U.S. highways with a brine liquid before the storm hit.

When snow begins falling, a mixture of salt and sand known as “slag” goes on roads. What Murdock called the “worst spots” – wooded areas like those around Crowders Mountain where sun can’t melt the ice – are treated with pure salt.

In Union County, state roads crews began on Monday treating all U.S. and state roads, and heavily traveled Old Charlotte Highway, with a salt-brine mix before the storm hit, said David Gillette, county maintenance engineer for N.C. DOT.

The mix serves as an anti-icing agent but it won’t work if temperatures drop below the low 20s.

On Tuesday, the crews used a rock salt and calcium chloride mix to help de-ice roads.

“The storm was not too bad, except for the icing on secondary roads,” Gillette said.

Statesville spread sand and calcium chloride pellets on nearly 100 of its 300 miles of road Tuesday evening “to keep traffic moving” and then again early Wednesday on trouble spots and where the city received calls, streets superintendent David Prevette said.

Mooresville treated primarily main and hilly roads with 5,200 gallons of brine between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday and spread 250 tons of salt during and after the storm, Public Works Manager John Finan said.

Like Charlotte, Mooresville makes its brine. It uses town water in the mixture, so the cost “is pennies on the gallon,” Finan said.

The town pays about $90 a ton for salt, he said.

All of the town’s 132 miles of road were eventually salted at least once, some roads more than once, Finan said.

“We have been out most of the day,” Finan said early Wednesday afternoon.

At the request of police, the town also treated some sections of state-maintained roads such as heavily traveled Brawley School Road, Finan said.

Two town employees will work from midnight to 8 a.m. Thursday responding to calls of roads needing more salt, he said.

Kim McMillian, a spokesperson for the city of Charlotte, said during a news conference that clearing sidewalks is the responsibility of residents or businesses. Joe Marusak contributed.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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