Frederick County road crews cast wary eye on winter -- Gazette.Net


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After an ominous taste of winter on Christmas Eve and Wednesday, area road crews are ready for the worst that the season has to offer whenever and wherever more snow and ice materializes, officials said.

But Frederick County’s size, topography and geographic location make snowfall hard to predict, according to Bill Routzahn, superintendent of the county Department of Highway Operations.

Elevations in the northern part of the county and in Mount Airy can mean those areas get snow when others don’t, or that roads may freeze when others are just wet, Routzahn said.

The county already used 79 tons of salt and anti-skid material on Nov. 27 for about 1.5 inches of snow that fell around Wolfsville and the northwestern part of the county, Routzahn said.

Crews usually use between 500 and 1,000 pounds of abrasives per mile during a storm, said Mike Ramsburg, maintenance section supervisor for the highway department.

The county began the winter season with 17,100 tons of salt and anti-skid abrasive, a finely-ground stone material.

Salt costs the county $56.40 per ton, while anti-skid costs $10.80 per ton, Ramsburg said.

In 2009, factors including a hard winter in the Midwest pushed salt prices to just below $76 per ton, but the price has since diminished somewhat, Ramsburg said.

Highway operations has $2.6 million allocated for snow removal, as well as $1 million budgeted under contingencies for snow removal in case of a severe winter, according to the Frederick County Budget Office.

The city of Frederick has more than $337,000 budgeted for snow removal in the current fiscal year, while Walkersville has about $105,000, according to officials in the municipalities.

Routzahn said Frederick County’s location in the mid-Atlantic region means almost any winter storm can bring rain, sleet, snow or a mix of all of them, as was expected to be the case Wednesday.

That precipitation followed the 1 to 2 inches of snow that fell on Christmas Eve, which brought a snow emergency to slippery area roads and reportedly a rash of minor traffic accidents.

“This is a bad area to predict snow,” Routzahn said.

The county may be overdue for a big snow after a relatively mild winter last year, Middletown Town Manager Drew Bowen said.

Middletown had $51,500 budgeted for snow removal this year, he said.

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area averages about 17 inches of snowfall per year, with Frederick County probably in the 20- to 25-inch range per year, according to Brian Lasorsa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

With no evidence of a significant meteorological factor to drive the weather systems, central Maryland probably faces an average winter, Lasorsa said.

On the less scientific side, the 2013 Farmer’s Almanac predicts that Maryland should expect colder than average temperatures but below-average snowfall this winter, which officially began on Saturday.

The Maryland State Highway Administration has a contract with a meteorological service and also works with the weather service to stay on top of weather developments, SHA spokesman Chuck Gischlar said.

While they factor the long-range forecast into their planning, they’re more focused on the more immediate seven- to 10-day forecast, he said.

Prior to this week’s precipitation, the SHA had budgeted $41 million for the winter, along with 360,000 tons of salt in 94 sites around the state to maintain the 17,818 miles of road that are its responsibility. The agency handles 1,280 miles of roads in Frederick County.

At a Dec. 13 meeting, the Frederick County Board of Commissioners approved an agreement with the SHA in which the county will compensate the state for salt loads that county crews pick up at SHA facilities during snowstorms.

The program — expected to cost $203,000 over its five-year existence — will increase county crews’ efficiency by allowing them to pick up salt at SHA facilities in Mount Airy, Emmitsburg and Point of Rocks, rather than having to go to county satellite facilities, according to a county memorandum.

If or when there is snow, the SHA shop along Md. 85 in Frederick is prepared to unveil a new two-winged plow that can cover two lanes of traffic in one pass, the first of its kind in the state, an SHA news release said.

The huge plows have been used in upstate New York and other areas, and can clear up to 24 feet of roadway at once, with 12-foot wings on either side of the main plow, doing the job of three plows at once.

If the new $202,000 plow works well this winter, the SHA may consider adding more dual-wing plows to its fleet, officials said.

Along with hardware that includes about 2,400 plows, trucks and other equipment available during a snowstorm, Gischlar said the SHA also has software such as sensors embedded in interstates and other major highways that allow officials to monitor temperatures and moisture on the roadways, as well as the salinity of any salt that was spread.

To limit impact on the environment, the state also tries to pretreat roads with a salt solution that creates a thin film on the surface and limits the amount of salt crews have to put down later, he said.

While the weather so far this winter has been mild, Gischlar knows that can change quickly.

“Your guess is as good as ours as far as what February is going to bring,” he said.

rmarshall@gazette.net