Archive for Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Commuters’ treks hazardous last week

Road crews fight snow buildup on Leavenworth County roads

February 11, 2004

State highway crews may have been out with their snowplows, but at least one local resident would like to have seen better results.

"It was terrible coming home -- the only path was the two tire tracks down the right-hand lane," said Ray Usher who commutes daily to the General Motors plant in Kansas City, Kan. "It was slushy, and there was only one lane and it was not even cleared off."

In his commute on Thursday, Usher said he did not see a snow plow or sand truck on U.S. Highway 24-40 between Kansas Highway 7 and Tonganoxie. And, to make matters worse, it was rush hour, he added.

"You knew there was going to be a lot of traffic coming home between a quarter to four and six in the evening, and it didn't look like there had been a truck by there in the last four hours," Usher said. "I just don't think they were out there -- I don't care what they say."

Peter Wiehe, Kansas Department of Transportation's area supervisor for Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties, has 18 trucks to handle snow on about 800 lane miles of highway.

Wiehe said KDOT has one truck designated to clear snow on U.S. Highway 24-40 from Kansas Highway 7 to Kansas Highway 16. The same truck also is responsible for the three-mile stretch of K-16 from Tonganoxie to Parallel Road. KDOT crews from Lawrence are responsible for cleaning U.S. 24-40 between K-16 and Lawrence, Wiehe said.

On Thursday, with snow falling at a reported one-inch an hour, the work was especially challenging, said Weihe.

"It snowed hard -- it's hard to keep up with it. You just try to do the best you can. Pretty much all you can do is keep one lane open," Wiehe said of U.S. 24-40.

And, clearing the work through Tonganoxie, where the highway has five lanes, is even more difficult, said Wiehe, who is in his 19th year with the department.

"The center lane is 15 to 18 feet wide through Tonganoxie, so actually you're talking about a lane and a half," Wiehe said.

When there's a grass median, such as on the highway between Tonganoxie and Basehor, the snow can be plowed to the median. But in Tonganoxie where the center lanes are used for turning, the snow must be moved to the outside edges of the road.

When the snow stops and trucks are available, KDOT can send more than one to Tonganoxie. In fact, by early Friday morning, U.S. 24-40 was back to four lanes from Tonganoxie to Basehor.

"There's a lot of times we'll team five trucks together and make one pass and be done," he said.

During storms like Thursday's, except for breakdowns or maintenance, the drivers work nonstop on their 12-hour shifts, Wiehe said.

"Usually you just eat on the go -- you don't stop," Wiehe said. "About the only time you get back in the office or the shop is to reload your truck."

And, if they're lucky, breakdowns will be minimal.

As of Monday morning, two consecutive weekends of notable snowstorms had taken their wear on the KDOT workers.

"All the guys around here haven't had a day off in two weeks," Wiehe said.

While Usher was critical of KDOT's snow removal, he praised the county's road crews, saying it appeared the county's roads had been plowed quickly.

Leavenworth County officials are hoping the rest of the winter will go as smoothly. It would help, said both county and state workers, if they have enough salt.

Wiehe said his salt supply is getting low and orders are running two to three weeks late.

Mel Sewell, Leavenworth County's road superintendent, said he's been making do.

"Our salt building holds 1,600 tons and it's empty right now," he said. "It's been empty for a week, we're just getting by a little bit by mixing calcium chloride with the sand. It keeps the sand from freezing. We can use that out on the road to help give drivers traction."

The county has 13 trucks with spreaders and plows on them, and 10 road graders with V-shaped plows to break up drifts, Sewell said.

It helps the county road situation that some of the employees who live throughout the county keep trucks with snowplows at their homes during the winter.

This works better than having all of the snowplows stored at the shop in the center of the county, Sewell said.

Sewell, who has worked for the county for 38 years, said this year's snows have been heavier than usual. The worst one he could recall was in the early months of 1979.

"We had everything running then," Sewell said. "Dozers and everything."

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