Carolina Curious: How Does NCDOT Prioritize Clearing Snowy Roads?

Carolina Curious: How Does NCDOT Prioritize Clearing Snowy Roads?

4:45pm Dec 07, 2018
Road salt and other equipment sits ready at the NCDOT Division 9 Maintenance Yard. SEAN BUETER/WFDD

As the Triad prepares for potentially heavy snow this weekend, people at the North Carolina Department of Transportation are getting ready too.

Listener Whitney Kuebert wanted to know how exactly they do that, among other things.

“Who makes the decision – when bad weather is coming – which roads get treated?”

We went searching for answers from the people at NCDOT Division 9.

At the division's maintenance yard at noon Friday, there were a few trucks and loaders here and there, and a crew preparing salt brine for the roads. But mostly, it was quiet.

Though, to be fair, it’s the quiet before the snowstorm.

That doesn’t mean road crews all over the state aren’t getting ready, though. According to Division 9 Maintenance Engineer John Rhyne, it’s quite the opposite.

“The five counties that we manage are all in the mode of preparing,” he says. “We’re checking out equipment, adjusting our staffing, and watching the forecast like everyone else is, with baited breath.”

According to Rhyne, between roughly Thanksgiving and early spring, NCDOT officials pay special attention to weather forecasts. And they listen in on National Weather Service briefings and keep up with the latest weather news. When a major weather event pops up, the wheels start turning, no matter how bad the predictions look.

“We treat every storm very similarly. We kind of gather all the forces whether it’s going to be a half inch or 12 inches," he explains. “So from our standpoint, we have to succeed in keeping the roads passable.”

But once the snow starts falling and crews are in position, how do they decide which roads to tackle first?

That’s one of the most common questions Rhyne gets from the public. And the answer is this: it’s largely spelled out already. Across the state, the department prioritizes the most important roadways with what’s called the “bare pavement system.”

“Those are the major roads that carry the largest amount of traffic, the ones that get you across the county and across the state,” he says. “They consist of the interstates and the primary roads, the numbered routes.”

From a traffic management perspective, it makes sense. If commercial trucks and other vehicles on a road like Interstate 40 can’t move safely, then things like emergency services and even businesses could grind to a halt.

That’s why, before a weather event starts, crews get out there to spread salt brine on the roads – basically a 23% salt-in-water mixture – to keep snow and ice from sticking.

Now, you’re probably thinking “that’s great and all, but when will they get to my neighborhood?”

Well, unless you hire a private service to do it, it mostly depends on how close you live to a major thoroughfare in your town.

“We begin there with the major secondary roads, the Shattalons, the Lewisville-Clemmons, the Shallowford Roads,” he says, referencing some of the main streets in Forsyth County. “And then we move into the subdivisions, the dead-end roads, the gravel roads.”

Think of it this way: NCDOT only has so much snow removal equipment to go around. So they deploy those resources in a way that benefits the most people first, and then work their way down.

To stay efficient, each division has a series of complex maps they develop over the summer that tells each plow and salt truck driver exactly where to go.

“One of the [comments] we get a lot is: ‘I saw a truck going down the road with the blade up.’ You may very well have, and there’s a purpose in that,” Rhyne says. “That truck is going somewhere else to begin their section. Their section just does not include the route you witnessed them driving by.”

To put a finer point on it: each division has pretty meticulous plans about how they tackle a snowstorm. It’s not random.

But let’s change gears here for a second: our listener, Whitney Kuebert, was also curious how bad all that salt and brine might be for her car. Good question! Here’s what John Rhyne had to say.

“As I do with my personal car, I’d take your car to the car wash, just for precautionary sake:. But the amount of salt per mile that we apply in the salt brine is much less than the amount of salt we apply during a snow event,” he explains.

The bottom line when we get a bunch of snow is this: there are a lot of people working really hard on this, and it’s a huge job.

“We’re tasked with managing 11,000 lane miles. Sometimes we’ll hear the comment, ‘well, you never got to my road, it melted.’ That may be the case if it’s a subdivision or a dead-end road and it’s lower down on the priority list, and we only got one or two inches and the sun comes out the next day like it often does in North Carolina,” he says.

“In our process of managing that 11,000 miles, we may make ten trips on the interstate because it snowed for hours upon hours.”

So, even though it can be frustrating after a storm to know that your neighborhood hasn’t been cleared yet, be patient. And fear not.

The folks at NCDOT have a plan, and they’re trying to keep everyone safe.

Support your
public radio station