Lull gives crews a break

By Ryan Brown

With the latest snow already hitting the roads and sidewalks, a long, miserable winter might have launched its last major offensive on Pennsylvania.

And while early forecasts pointed to several inches of snow in Altoona by this morning, a weeklong lull has given highway authorities and plow companies time to lick their wounds, repair their vehicles and refill dwindling salt reserves.

As the storm approached late last week, local officials expressed confidence as they readied their tools for the next battle.

“Right now the guys are going over the plows: tightening the bolts, going over the engines, checking all their fluids,” Altoona Highway Superintendent Alan Hykes said Friday afternoon. “It’s nice to have a couple of days’ break.”

Highway officials said they spent much of last week clearing what they could, hauling away high-piled snow so today’s fall wouldn’t gather too heavily on roadsides after plowing. While the area received very little accumulation in the week before this storm, frigid temperatures for all but a couple of days kept some snow on the ground.

“The problem’s where to put the snow. … It’s hard to find anywhere to put it anymore,” said Denny Mattas, owner of Duncansville-based Asphalt Maintenance Co., which plows private parking lots.

Several added inches could force some plow companies to choose between letting piles grow too large or hauling them to be dumped elsewhere, Mattas said.

A badly timed thaw-freeze cycle earlier this month could make matters worse, with snow piles turning into rock-hard ice formations in parking lots and on roadsides.

“You’re not going to use a snowplow to push through the ice. It’s there to stay,” he said. Public authorities have to use special equipment when the ice formations extend just too far into the road, officials added.

Should the storm leave roads seriously icy – something highway workers said didn’t appear likely over the weekend – the recent lull allowed some agencies to restock salt after weeks of nationwide shortages.

Tara Callahan-Henry, a PennDOT District 9 spokeswoman, said Friday that district trucks were en route to Harrisburg to pick up 1,000 tons of salt. Their Blair County vehicle stockpile was at 100 percent operation, she said, and their corps of drivers was readying for a new spate of 12-hour shifts.

“If nothing else, it gave our operators a chance to get a break themselves, catch their breath,” she said.

With the help of the county’s recently acquired tow-plow, a large trailer that allows a truck to cover two lanes while spraying ice-killing brine on the road, the fully operational fleet shouldn’t have too hard a time responding to the storm, Callahan-Henry said.

Logan Township crews, following standard procedures, planned to hit twice – midway through the storm and as it ends, Highway Foreman Lamarr Dively said. By the weekend, crews had knocked out most of the major snow piles and didn’t see ice as a problem for the coming week.

“With the piles of snow, we were extremely worried about two weeks ago, after the last round of snow,” said Byron Smail of Roaring Spring, whose company, Byron Smail Landscape Contracting, employs a crew of four and plows 60 properties. “But with the warming, there’s a little more room.”

Temperatures this week should help avoid one cleanup headache. Expected days of below freezing temperatures reduces the chances that the snow will melt on the roads and then refreeze as ice.

That’s good news for departments like Altoona’s, where road salt has been cut with other substances as much as 75 percent since January in a bid to stretch supplies.

“We should be fine through this storm. We’ll see where we’re at [this week],” Hykes of Altoona’s highway department said. “We haven’t even thought about thinking ahead to the next storm yet.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.