May 21, 2019
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Record January snowfall took a toll on Presque Isle Public Works crew

Melissa Lizotte | Presque Isle Star-Herald
Melissa Lizotte | Presque Isle Star-Herald
A Presque Isle Public Works vehicle works to clear extra snow from a sidewalk on University Drive ahead of a winter storm that brought several more inches of snow.

With well over 100 inches of snowfall so far this winter, the Presque Isle Public Works crew has worked longer hours and stretched the department’s budget on many occasions to keep the roadways clean for drivers.

“Throughout January, the guys were working an average of 75 to 95 hours a week,” said Chris Perkins, deputy director of Presque Isle Public Works. “At one point they worked 56 hours nonstop. In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen that happen before.”

Last month became the snowiest January on record, with the National Weather Service in Caribou reporting 59.8 inches for the month. That total broke the previous record of 44.5 inches of snow that fell in January 1994. Perkins said that the January snowfall contributed to public works using around 500 more tons of salt than normal so far this winter season. Typically the department uses around 2,350 tons of salt every winter, with 350 tons given to local school districts for their grounds.

Although February has only produced one major winter storm so far, having a small crew of 13 — including Perkins and two mechanics who also work as plow drivers — means working continuously until the worst of any storm is over.

After the latest big storm on Wednesday, crew members left work at 9 p.m. and came back at 3:30 a.m. Thursday to salt and plow roadways and sidewalks before the morning commute. With the several inches of snowfall that was predicted for that Friday afternoon and evening, crews were out from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — which constitutes a normal workday — to prepare for additional accumulation.

But on Friday evening crews worked overtime hours in order to take care of the mix of rain and snow that fell, a practice that has become more common than normal this winter season. Perkins said that his crew members each have worked at least 20 to 30 hours overtime on this season.

“It’s a long workday when you’re working 48 hours straight or more, even though you’re getting paid,” Perkins said. “During those January storms, the guys would stop long enough to put more fuel in their trucks and grab a bite to eat, but that’s it. After so many hours you have to stop because they’ll get tired and that’s when accidents can happen.”

Dana Fowler, public services director for the city of Presque Isle, said that the extra snowfall has resulted in public works using 35 percent of the department’s 2019 overtime budget and 26 percent of its diesel fuel budget for plow equipment. The entire budget for the 2019 municipal year is $1.9 million.

“We’ve estimated that with one 12-inch storm we spent $26,000 on everything — salt, sand, fuel and overtime hours,” Fowler said. “It’s expensive, for sure, but it’s something that needs to be done to keep the roads clear.”

Presque Isle Public Works operates with nine plow trucks to clean roadways and two sidewalk machines. Each crew member covers an area of city territory that is 12.5 centerline miles, which refers to the actual distance of the road. Daily plowing is broken into nine runs that typically take 3 to 4 hours to complete, though crews have been known to be out for 4 ½ hours or more during major storms.

Perkins noted that the crew typically begins a storm day by cleaning high-traffic roads such as Main, Academy, Maysville and State streets before moving on to side streets and residential areas. Some of the most challenging roads to clean have been ones located over open terrain that increases the intensity of blowing snow during strong winds, such as the Chapman, Centerline, Brewer and Burlock roads.

Though the department has worked with the Presque Isle City Council in recent years to save more funds to buy newer equipment, public works still has trucks that are 20 to 30 years old. When snow removal equipment does need repairs, that creates further problems during major cleanup days.

“If one of our trucks breaks down we lose a driver because one of our mechanics has to stay behind,” Perkins said. “Unlike the [Maine] Department of Transportation, local municipalities can’t afford to have spare plow drivers on call.”

He encourages motorists who come across public works vehicles to slow down, give plow operators enough room to do their jobs and be patient, especially during the evening and early morning hours when they already are growing tired from a longer than normal day at work.

Lately, Perkins said, public works also has seen an increase in folks pushing extra snow from driveways onto the roadways, which not only creates unsafe driving conditions but is illegal.

“When people push that snow onto the road it blocks half a lane. Then after it freezes we can’t move it out of the way,” Perkins said. “The police have told us that they’ve seen more incidents like that during the last few years.”

With several weeks of winter still ahead, Perkins and his crew are hoping that the amount of heavy snowfall and storms becomes less prevalent in order to finish the year within the budget and to reduce the wear and tear on equipment.

“An early spring would make everybody’s life better this season,” Perkins said.

This was originally published in The County.

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