Tighter budget, better technology mean less winter road maintenance by DOT
By Bob Mercer
PIERRE — Several years ago, because of financial necessity, the state Department of Transportation adopted a cost-control approach to winter highway maintenance.
The department seems to be getting it down pat.
The state Transportation Commission gave its approval Thursday to a $17.7 million budget for clearing snow and ice from South Dakota’s roads this winter.
The real bottom line is DOT will spend what is needed. Last winter DOT was budgeted $17.3 million and was on line to finish well within that budget until late-season storms hit in April.
The final total cost surpassed $17.9 million.
What’s happened is DOT established some different expectations for its operations and among the traveling public.
Crews generally are not on the roads anymore between the hours of 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. Main roads are to be 80 percent cleared within 18 hours after a storm. Temporary closures have been frequently used.
Meanwhile, people are getting more attuned to road conditions. They are using the free ClearPath511 text and email services. And DOT is putting out consistently updated information two to three times daily.
DOT assembles three winter-travel updates daily on weekdays. Those become available before 5 a.m., between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and between 4 and 7 p.m.
On Saturdays and Sundays, there are two daily: one before 9 a.m. and one between 4 and 7 p.m.
A computer system receives weather updates from many locations to help DOT’s management. The data’s availability also reduces the frequency of trips solely for checking conditions.
“That has really helped us cut down our costs and chemical usage,” said Jason Humphrey. As DOT’s construction and maintenance engineer, he directly oversees the winter maintenance operation.
Salt is DOT’s primary chemical weapon. Last winter, DOT used 70,000 tons costing about $4.25 million.
DOT pulls its crews off the roads when conditions are too tough. The blizzard that ripped through western South Dakota three weeks ago shut down almost everything as snow came too thick and deep.
“Short of our four-by-fours and six-by-sixes (types of plow trucks), nothing would move it around,” said Greg Fuller, DOT’s director of operations.