No easy task
A look at how the street department keeps winter roads safe in Marshfield
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — Keeping the roads passable and safe during a Wisconsin winter is an enormous task. To do it successfully takes a combination of experience, manpower, and technology.
Mike Winch is the new street superintendent for Marshfield, taking over in September of this year from Brian Panzer, who had served for 30 years in that position. Winch has been with the street department in various roles for 35 years, most recently as assistant street superintendent.
Winch oversees the entire snow and ice removal operation for the city of Marshfield, and he makes the decisions of when to salt or plow and how many staff to send out on the streets.
His department monitors the weather constantly. Someone is always on call in case road conditions change.
If snowfall exceeds two inches, Winch calls on his full staff of 24 individuals, and the roads are plowed and salted. If snowfall is less than two inches, the streets are salted but not plowed. The crew generally hits the streets prior to the time students head out for school and adults travel to work.
At the street department’s disposal are 28 vehicles that vary in purpose. Some are for salting, and others plow or haul snow away from the city streets. Winch said that plowing the entire city takes the street division about six hours. A salting operation takes about four hours.
Marshfield’s street department oversees 303 lane miles (for example, if a road is 2 miles long but has two lanes, there are 4 lane miles) and 12 miles of city sidewalk.
Winch must decide how to address every different type of weather, how many resources to send out to clear the streets, and which routes need the most attention.
“There are so many variables. I mean you could fill that whole newspaper with the variables that we deal with,” Winch said.
He added that higher traffic and higher speed areas within the city, like Veterans Parkway, may receive different treatment or require more resources than lesser trafficked areas.
Assistant Street Superintendent Kurt Bornbach, who has been with the street department since 1986, said the department’s guiding principle is, “We have to make the roads safe for your worst driver out there.”
Both Bornbach and Winch said that as technology has improved, so has their department’s efficiency.
Some of the department’s vehicles have pavement temperature sensors that more accurately depict the state of the roads than does the air temperature. Improved weather forecasting and radar technology allows the department to know further in advance what to expect and how to align resources to best take care of the streets.
“As far as planning what you’re going to do, it’s gotten a lot easier. We’ve been able to cut down our salt usage by a lot,” Bornbach said.
Winch added that improved technology has allowed the department to better monitor the usage of their resources. The city has had budget shortfalls for snow and ice removal in both of the last two years due to unusually challenging winters, and preserving resources is a main focus of the street department.
“We’re conscientious. We don’t just go and dump salt out. The technology of the pavement temperatures, the salting controllers on the trucks are more sophisticated now. … We calibrate how much salt is used per lane mile,” said Winch.
Winch said that the salt mixture the department uses now performs better and at lower temperatures than it did in years past.
“It’ll (the salt) work down to 10 below zero,” Bornbach added.
Winch said because his department does not plow unless a snow fall exceeds two inches, the streets might not always look pretty, but safety is his top priority.
“We’re not looking for aesthetics. We’re looking for public safety in the most cost effective way we know, and sometimes that would be just salt only (and not plowing).”