Early lake-effect snowfalls last week in Ashtabula and Lake counties did not faze Ohio Department of Transportation District 4 snowplow drivers and mechanics.
Instead, it gave them a chance to give their equipment early winter tests.
ODOT snowplow operators have been spending recent weeks preparing for the first big snowfalls of the 2013 winter season.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Raymond L. Smith
Ohio Department of Transportation mechanic Jim Sowinksi of Leavittsburg checks underneath one of the plow trucks that will be used this winter to remove snow from area highways.
"Our salt bins are full and trucks are prepared for whatever snow accumulations that happens during this winter season," Justin Chesnic, a spokesman with the Ohio Department of Transportation's District 4, said last week from the ODOT Trumbull County office in Cortland.
ODOT's District 4 includes Ashtabula, Summit, Mahoning, Stark and Trumbull counties. This region annually receives the second highest amount of snowfall in the state. Only District 12, which includes the lake-effect snow counties of Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga, receives a higher amount of snow.
Greg Solarz, administrator with the Trumbull County ODOT office, said having some areas of the county in the secondary region of the snow belt makes every winter unpredictable.
"I've have not found any reliable way to predict when lake-effect snowfalls are going to happen," he said. "One day we could have cold air crossing over the warm water of Lake Erie and cause lake-effect snows, and the next day there could be the same conditions and there will not be any snow fall."
Even with new technology and trucks, Solarz said snow removal, especially when it is extremely cold with heavy snows are falling on the ground, is always difficult.
"New technologies have made us more efficient," he said.
Solarz said the more congested, highly traveled roads generally are easier to maintain than those areas of the county that have less traffic.
"The traffic moves the salt around," he said. "Areas where there is less traffic and heavy snowfall create conditions in which snow packs can form and it is harder to move the snow around."
Because of the amount of snow that fell over the last five years, District 4 annually spent an average for $4.06 million for salt.
During the last winter season, Trumbull County was hit with about 6 feet of snow. About 10 feet of snow fell on Ashtabula County.
In the 2011-12 winter season, District 4 used 1.89 million gallons of salt brine and 130,512 tons of road salt on 4,168 lane miles of roads in the five county region.
District 4 has a total 416 employees and 135 snowplows, trucks and other vehicles ready to plow its roads. With 30 vehicles, Trumbull has the highest number of vehicles in the district ready to clear about 900 lane miles of roads.
Two drivers are assigned to each of the 24 routes in the district. ODOT snow removal employees and mechanics work 12-hour shifts during the winter months to make sure there always are people ready to ploy road whether the snow falls during the day or night.
There are 32 full-time ODOT employees in Trumbull, according to Greg Solarz, administrator for ODOT's Trumbull county office. Seasonal workers are added as they are needed.
ODOT has 12 districts covering 88 counties in the state.
The cost of operations have been dropping over the last two years because the cost of salt has dropped. In District 4, road salt now cost $27.50 per ton, which is about half the amount paid three years ago, according to Chesnic.
In other parts of the state, the cost for salt ranges from a low of $23.87 per ton to $55.18 per ton. The statewide average for salt is $37.88 per ton.
There are four companies supplying salt to 88 counties in the state. Morton, which won the bid for the five counties in District 4, supplies salt to 44 Ohio counties.
In 2011, the statewide average for road salt was $54.02 per ton. There was approximately $60.4 million spent on salt. At a statewide average of $35.83 per ton, it is estimated that 2013's road salt cost will be about $40.1 million.
"We are paying less today because more companies are bidding on the contract to supply salt," Chesnic said. "Before, we had two to three companies bidding to provide road salt, we now have six to seven companies bidding for the contract. There is more competition, which has lowered the cost. Over the last two years, we've saved about $20 million statewide on salt purchases."
Other savings have come from reducing the ODOT's full-time work force through retirements. It hires seasonal workers during the winter season to help fill 12-hour work shifts.
Solarz said drivers can help snowplow drivers by slowing down during and after snow storms, keeping reasonable distances between themselves and other vehicles, especially snowplows, and to reduce distractions, such as using electronic devices and eating while driving.
"If you can't see the side view mirror of the snow ploy, the driver cannot see you," he said.
Frank Tempesta, director of Warren's operation department, said the city is ready for this winter's storms.
"We've ordered about 4,000 tons of salt," Tempesta said. "We also expect to buy several thousand tons of ice control material."
Tempesta said during past winter seasons, the city has used an average 4,000 tons of salt on its roads.
The city buys its salt under the state contract, so the salt costs $27.50 per ton.
"We can get it at this price so long as we purchase between 80 percent and 120 percent of the 4,000 tons," he said.
The city has 12 2 1/2-ton vehicles on which snowplow blades are placed, and it places blades on some of the city pickup trucks for alleys and some parking lots. The city's 2 1/2-ton vehicles are between 15 years old and 23 years old.
"We have 186 lane miles in the city to plow," Tempesta said. "We don't have open lanes in which our plows can go 35 miles per hour. We have traffic lights and stop signs in the city and we have to adhere to all of the traffic laws."
Tempesta said the department attempts to get out early in the morning before the snow is packed down and turned to ice.
"The majority of our employees have their Commercial Drivers Licenses, so any one of them can be assigned to remove stow," he said.
Tempesta is asking residents not to park on city streets after snow events to make it easier for his trucks to clear the roads.
Girard's street foreman Mike Hanna says the city uses an average of 1,200 tons of salt a year on their streets and roads.
"Our salt barn holds about 350 tons of salt and we generally fill it up three times a winter season," Hanna said.
Girard has three plow trucks that are less than two years old and one older vehicle.
"We are pretty good shape for the winter," Hanna said. "We're sending them out one at a time to make sure their fluids are changed and they are in good condition."
During the winter season, the city has seven available drivers to do all of their roads.