Winter is coming and the Maine Department of Transportation is getting ready for it.
Last year, the department spent $44 million on winter road maintenance, making 2018 the most expensive winter ever for the department in terms of the cost of the labor and materials that go into plowing and salting state roadways. The cost of winter road maintenance has doubled over the past decade, according to data from the department.
The work that goes into keeping roads clear is extensive. It involves dispatching a statewide network of plow trucks, and it starts hours or days before there’s even snow on the roads. At the center of it are the department’s so-called snow fighters, as the agency calls its crew members assigned to winter road maintenance.
On Wednesday, the Department of Transportation kicked off two days of training for about 60 mostly new snow fighters at the department’s office in Bangor, so they could familiarize themselves with the department’s different plow trucks and study up on the right mixture of salt and other materials to use.
Department staff members on Wednesday also discussed what goes into keeping the roads they’re responsible for — generally, state routes and interstate highways — clear during a winter storm.
“You’re keeping an eye out for where the storm is,” said Brian Burne, highway maintenance engineer. “Ideally, you want the crews in position, ready to go before the storm’s even started.”
The department has a transportation management center in Augusta that functions as the headquarters for storm preparation. The center collects information from weather monitoring stations across the state — which the department has in each of its six designated geographical regions in Maine — and relays it to driver supervisors.
Supervisors then assign snow fighters — the crew members behind the wheel — to plow routes and shifts. A snow fighter can be on the road for up to 16 hours, but during severe storms it can be more. And it can take up to three hours for a driver to cover all the roadways on a single plow route.
The training is for snow plow drivers new to the job.
It includes hands-on sessions from different driver supervisors in the six regions who help familiarize new employees with the different kinds of plows the department uses. Classroom sessions focus on the logistical details of the job, such as the cost of the road salt costs and the appropriate mixture to apply to the roads in different conditions and on different kinds of roads. (The department sometimes sprays salt brine — a mixture of salt and water. Other times, it uses a combination of molasses and magnesium chloride along with the rock salt to help it cling to the road and melt ice and snow.)
Brian Whiting has been working as a driving supervisor in western Maine for over 30 years and said he has helped new employees with everything from getting the Commercial Driver’s License needed to operate the vehicle to helping them put snow chains on plow truck tires.
The trainees take to the roads as soon as the first storm hits — which could be anytime now, Burne said. Last year, there was snow on the ground during the October training sessions.
The snow fighters might be at it for six months: Some major state routes have to be regularly plowed as late as May.
“The snow fighters have to develop a real skill for judging what they have to do to the road right now so that it stays in a reasonable condition for the entire plow cycle,” Burne said, “because they won’t have another chance to retreat the road until they come back.”