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Randy Gunderson, patrol superintendent at the St. Croix County Highway Department, sits at his desk Friday and looks over weather data from the county's Maintenance Decision Support System.

Highway Dept. stays calm before the storm

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Last Friday, while many people frantically tried to get off work early, cancel weekend shopping trips and rearrange weekend plans in anticipation of the big snow storm, Randy Gunderson, patrol superintendent at the St. Croix County Highway Department, calmly sat at his desk looking over weather data from the county's Maintenance Decision Support System.

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"There's not much you can do about (the weather), so there's no sense in getting too excited," Gunderson said.

While Gunderson looked over maps, charts and diagrams, many of his plow drivers headed home around noon to get some sleep before spending virtually the entire weekend in their plows, trying to keep the roadways clear of the seemingly never-ending snow.

"Everybody seems pretty relaxed. They go home and wait for the call. When they get it, they come in and deal with it." Gunderson said.

While many county residents worried about how they were going to get around in almost two feet of snow, Gunderson's biggest worry was the high winds.

While many inches of snow can be easily plowed off the roadway, wind brings snow across the roads and anything wet or chemically wet (from salt or chloride) continuously refreezes causing unsafe icy roads, he said.

"There are times we can't even salt when it's blowing that bad, all we can do is plow," Gunderson said. "We're not just skipping spots because we don't feel like sanding there. There are reasons why we can't sand or salt. One of the biggest reasons is the wind."

MDSS

The St. Croix County Highway Department is one of several counties in the Midwest piloting the new MDSS. As part of the project, the highway department sends weekly reports to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation about errors, inaccuracies or suggested improvements to the program.

Common reports include inaccuracies on predicted temperatures or amounts of salt needed. In addition to inaccuracies or errors, the highway department includes material usage, vehicle usage and the number of hours plow drivers spend on roadways. The state then uses the information to work with MDSS to improve the computer program.

In the past, the county used to predict weather conditions by watching radar similar to that seen on television news broadcasts -- a moving blob of color going over an outline of the state. It was very broad and often inaccurate.

The new MDSS is very descriptive and includes a great deal of information helpful in determining what Mother Nature has in store for Wisconsinites and what the highway department needs to do to combat it.

The charts, diagrams and tables provide information such as wind speed, direction and gusts; snow accumulation and rate; precipitation levels; road temperature; liquid, ice and snow depths; as well as a number of other important numbers and information crucial to properly treating roadways in winter weather conditions.

"It tells us at what point in time the snow will most likely become compacted on the roadways and guides us in determining how much salt and chloride to use per lane mile," Gunderson said.  

The county has access to information hour-by-hour for nearly any location within the state.

A guide

Gunderson said as accurate as MDSS is, experience always trumps technology. 

Regardless of what MDSS data suggests, most of the county's plow drivers have years of experience that has enabled them to make responsible plowing decisions based on the physical conditions they experience while on the roadways.  County drivers know when to make modifications or adjustments to ensure roadways are cleared in the safest and most efficient manner.

Gunderson said MDSS is strictly an assistive tool.

"MDSS is just a guide," he said. "We can't go by it completely, especially with the salt usage."

Gunderson said sometimes the system suggests the use of 100 pounds of salt per lane mile, when the county should actually use twice that amount. In some cases, the county needs to use only a fraction of the suggested amount of salt or sand. As the system becomes more accurate and plow drivers gain experience, educated decisions on how county resources should be used will inevitably save money for the county highway department and the towns and villages it serves.

"It's just something to go by so I'm not hanging my hand out the window all night long wondering what (the weather is) going to do."

Gunderson was trained how to operate the program this year and used MDSS for the first three snow storms. He said the software "held pretty true to the time it was supposed to start and end, and the amount of rain and ice we were supposed to have."

Gunderson said the previous accurate data has made him more dependent on the new software than the previous weather radar the department used.

Many of the highway department supervisors have access to the program at their homes, and Gunderson plans on getting the program on his home computer soon.

In the mean time, Gunderson receives notifications on his cell phone, with updates on weather and road conditions.

Dedicated drivers

Gunderson appreciates the new technology at the department, but says he really appreciates the dedicated men who help make his job easier.

Gunderson said he doesn't really have to tell his "guys" anything and said many times they come to him with suggestions and an eagerness to get out on the roads.

Gunderson said he is proud to work with the county plow drivers and that he is constantly surprised with their determination and commitment.

Gunderson said 23 men were off of work during hunting season when the big rain and ice storm came. Of those 23, all but five men came back to plow, salt and sand.

The five men who didn't come in were too far up north and couldn't safely make it back to the area to help out.

Gunderson said he and the plow drivers "have a really good working relationship."

Gunderson said the positive work atmosphere has helped make response to this year's snowstorms successful.

Weekend's storm

Gunderson said the MDSS predictions for last weekend's storm were about 80 percent accurate, which he said was really good compared to most television news forecasts.

Gunderson said the guys put in a lot of hours and at one point the county had 36 to 38 trucks out plowing.

On Sunday the highway department had three graders clearing roadways. Gunderson said the graders work to clear inches of thick compacted snow from the roads. He said compacted snow causes slippery conditions for motorists. Grader blades work by cutting through compaction, getting fairly close to the blacktop, which allows salt to "burn through" the snow and ice quickly.

Cleanup

St. Croix County plow trucks and graders don't stop when the snow stops.

Gunderson said it could take all week to cleanup the roadways and more snow this week could make cleanup take even longer.

On Monday the highway department had 36 trucks and five graders around the county cleaning and widening roads taken over by the weekend snowfall.

Gunderson said after the long hours over the weekend, plow drivers put in only an eight-hour day Monday.

Gunderson claims he has the "best crew in the state of Wisconsin."

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Gretta Stark
Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.
(715) 426-1048
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