Highway superintendents talk plowing and sanding

Local plow drivers have had plenty of work this February. — File photo by Steve Myrick

As snow fell Saturday, the familiar sound of revving engines and clanking plows echoed around Martha’s Vineyard. With 177 miles of paved roads to be plowed across the six towns, snow plows and sand spreaders have been busy this winter season.

From season to season, anticipating how much snow will fall on the Vineyard is anyone’s guess. Island highway superintendents begin planning months in advance of the winter by purchasing and stocking up on sand and salt.

Sand versus salt

Unlike other communities across the state, the Island does not use a straight  salt formula to de-ice the roads, because of environmental concerns, MVC wastewater planner Sheri Caseau told The Times.

The Island uses a sand-salt mix to improve traction for vehicles.

Each town buys sand from Goodales at $7.80 per ton. Salt is bought wholesale from Eastern Minerals and delivered by waste management company Bruno’s. The going rate has increased considerably this year, from $75 to $95 a ton, including delivery charges from Chelsea.

While sand requires repeated applications and extensive cleanup, studies have found that straight road salt can contaminate soil and kill plants along the roads as well as bleed into groundwater, contaminating rivers and lakes.

Sand helps to create traction at any temperature, as long as it is spread over the ice, Edgartown highway superintendent Stuart Fuller told The Times.

If the weather is too cold, however, sand can clump and freeze together, becoming part of the ice and providing no traction. Adding the right amount of salt can keep this from happening.

Sand is effective as long it is on the surface: if it is buried under more snow, it must be reapplied. Heavy traffic will move the sand off the road, requiring regular reapplication, Mr. Fuller said.

Town highway superintendents also work to stay within the constraints of their budgets, which melt away with each new storm. This season, all have one thing in common — they have exceeded their snow removal budgets.

In conversation during a lull in the weather, town highway superintendents talked about the challenges involved in keeping the roads clear.

One part of the job

In the Island’s smallest town, Aquinnah director of public works Jay Smalley said snowplowing is just a part of another hard day’s work in the winter.

“It’s a one man show up here,” Mr. Smalley said in a phone conversation with The Times. “But somebody’s got to do it.”

Aquinnah budgeted $10,759 for snow and ice removal from eight to ten miles of paved roads that needed to be plowed and sanded. There are no set hours in this line of work, Mr. Smalley said. And no schedule. It’s an on-call job, depending on the weather forecast.

“If it starts snowing at two o’clock in the morning, I’m out there at two o’clock in the morning,” Mr. Smalley said. “We’ve got to make sure the roads are cleared for the school buses and workers. It’s a tough job, but an important one.”

Some roads are still dangerous to drive on. Private roads and state roads are not maintained by Island municipalities, Mr. Smalley said. “Every storm is basically its own animal. This year it’s been particularly bad.”

Mr. Smalley said the biggest obstacles in Aquinnah are the high winds. “Some roads I can go down, no problem. Others we can have a real problem with,” he said. “Overall, though, I don’t mind the work. It makes the winter go by faster.”

Springtime, Mr. Smalley said, is the moment to sweep the roads clear of any sand-salt residue. Cleanup after storms is just another part of the job.

“We do this every year,” Mr. Smalley said. “It usually takes three to four days using the street sweeper that goes out and sweeps the roads.”

Override in Edgartown

Edgartown budgeted a total of $35,800 for snow removal this year, Mr. Fuller told The Times.

“This year, I’ve asked selectmen for an override to pay bills,” Mr. Fuller said. “I haven’t had to do that since 2005. But this is a pretty severe winter, and that’s being reflected in the cost.”

Mr. Fuller has spent the last 13 winters keeping the roads cleared. He said he can remember the town using sand for as long as he can remember. “I’ve grown up here, and I can remember seeing the brown stripes of sand pretty much since childhood,” he said.

Mr. Fuller said the cost in overtime pay, which started out at $18,400 in the available budget, has been overspent by $1,100 so far this season.

“We have 45 miles of road to plow in town,” Mr. Fuller said. “Whether it snows one inch or one foot, we still have to treat the roads. So the size of the event sometimes doesn’t change in the amount of dollars.”

Mr. Fuller said the Island is definitely in the minority by using sand. “It gives you traction, helps to break up and grind frozen ice and snow, and it doesn’t melt like straight salt will,” he said.

Mr. Fuller also said there is also a certain psychology involved in using sand.

“I think it comes down to driver satisfaction,” he said. “People can see the sand and they know the roads have been treated.”

There are seven employees and seven trucks commissioned by the Edgartown highway department. “We try to keep everything in house,” Mr. Fuller said. “We hire very few outside contractors.”

Each truck has a plow. The largest truck holds 24,000 pounds of material, a medium size truck 15,000 pounds.

Mr. Fuller referred to long nights of plowing and sand spreading as “sanding events. The long duration, that’s the toughest part,” he said. “It is what it is. Sometimes there’s a lot of traffic on the road when you’re trying to do your job and that can be challenging.”

Oak Bluffs plans early

Oak Bluffs highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. said planning for the winter season starts months in advance by stocking the salt shed at the highway department.

“We start mixing in the fall,” Mr. Combra said. “We generally start with a shed full of salt and sand and we just order more and mix more depending on where we’re at. We like to keep the pile stocked.”

As with other towns, Oak Bluffs uses the same sand-salt formula.

“We started with 200 tons of salt and 500 tons of sand,” Mr. Combra said. “And we just ordered another 200 tons of salt and 300 tons of sand.”

The mixture is kept in a salt shed at the highway department and mixed well in advance of a storm, he said.

The budget allotted to snow removal in Oak Bluffs is$25,000, including the cost of materials and overtime for workers.

Oak Bluffs has three sand spreaders, including two large spreaders and one small spreader, to cover 38 miles of paved roads.

“It’s pretty labor intensive,” Mr. Combra said. “These guys are out there, it’s cold, it’s late at night, that’s really the hardest part.”

Self taught in West Tisbury

Unlike other towns, West Tisbury hires all outside contractors to complete snow and ice removal, highway superintendent Richard Olsen told The Times.

“It’s a long day for these guys,” Mr. Olsen said. “Depending on the storm, they could be out for 20 hours straight. But they’re good about it. I’m really comfortable with the guys we have and the way it works out.”

Mr. Olsen said West Tisbury contracts six plows, not including one plow that is owned by the town. Four plows are owned and contracted by David Merry of landscape contractor Merry & Sons, the other two are owned by Richard Olsen & Sons.

“Some towns like to pre-treat the roads,” Mr. Olsen said. “I don’t like to do that. I don’t think there’s any advantage to it. That’s what the experts say to do. But every storm is different and you have to treat it different. You have to put different quantities down, depending on the temperature or the amount of snow. There are a lot of things that factor in.”

West Tisbury budgets $40,000 for snow removal annually but spent $86,588 last year, a figure which is on the rise, according to town accountant Bruce Stone. Of the $40,000, between $6,000 and $7,000 is budgeted for sand. The rest is dedicated to contract work for plowers.

“I would expect we’re up to $90,000 for the snow and ice removal budget,” Mr. Stone told The Times. “I’ll find out later this week when the bills come in. This has been a bad winter so far.”

At a West Tisbury selectmen’s meeting February 12, selectmen voted unanimously to pay snow removal expenses of $37,000 that have exceeded the current budget. Mr. Stone said this type of additional expense is traditionally added to the next year’s budget.

“We were in a similar situation budget-wise last year,” Mr. Stone said. “But the year before that we came in way under for snow and ice removal. So you never really know.”

Mr. Stone referenced Massachusetts General Law Chapter 44 Section 31D, which provides that snow and ice removal are the only line budget item that towns can over spend on, with the approval of selectmen and the finance committee. West Tisbury has used 550 tons of sand so far this year.

“I’ve been doing this kind of work for 50 years,” Mr. Olsen said. “I’m self taught. I know the state does things differently, but I know how to treat our roads. We have a good system here.”