Snowfall offers early test for road crews

November 23, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

The snowfall the Issaquah area received in recent days served as a practice run for city and King County road crews, not to mention commuters.

The extended forecast calls for a harsh winter. La Niña conditions could mean more snow in the months ahead — a lot more — and snowplows could turn into a familiar site on local roads.

In the days before the snowflakes start to fall, the Issaquah Public Works Operations Department and the King County Road Services Division ready equipment to mobilize if conditions should require roads to be plowed and sanded.

Bret Heath, city Public Works Operations and emergency management director, said residents should monitor conditions if the forecast includes snow.

“Making a decision to drive in snow is making a decision to drive in a hazardous condition,” he said. “If you don’t have to, think real hard about whether you really have to drive. Take some public transit, walk to public transit if you can or, better yet, stay put.”

Meanwhile, emergency planners prepare plans to alert Issaquah residents through the city radio station, 1700-AM, emergency information phone line and a section of the municipal website dedicated to winter weather conditions.

“Keeping updated is important, because the intensity of a snowstorm can vary between Seattle and Issaquah or in different areas, so having localized information is really important before you leave the house or before you leave work,” city spokeswoman Autumn Monahan said.

Crews focus on high-priority roads

If snow does materialize, the city public works department and county Road Services Division start to dispatch crews to plow and sand slushy roadways. Crews may also apply a deicer to major arterial streets and bridges.

Heath said the public works department stages equipment along major roadways if snow seems to be a certainty.

“We’re not going to be able to keep snow off of the main route, but what we are going to try and do is keep the main route sanded so that it’s passable,” he said.

Officials encourage drivers to monitor the latest weather forecasts and prepare for winter driving conditions.

Motorists should also pay special attention to bridges and overpasses, because both can be more prone to freeze during late night and early morning hours. So, drivers should be on the lookout for black ice, as well as snow.

The city focuses on hillside routes — such as Highlands Drive Northeast, Mountain Park Boulevard Southwest, Northwest Talus Drive and Southeast Issaquah-Fall City Road — to maintain access to Issaquah hillside communities and the Sammamish Plateau.

The public works department also stages snow equipment along high-priority roads in order to deploy crews as snow appears.

Heath said the city had added snow equipment and updated high-priority routes since the last major snowstorm in December 2008.

“Something we’ve learned from past experience is, once the snow starts to fall, that traffic gets so thick that we have a hard time getting our rigs around,” he said.

Crews then apply sand sprayed with a de-icing fluid — calcium chloride with a modifier added to reduce corrosion — to Issaquah roadways. If the forecast calls for rain to turn to snow, crews do not de-ice roads beforehand, because the rain dilutes the de-icing agent.

“Based on the forecast, we’re deciding whether or not we’re going to be doing anti-icing ahead of time,” Heath said. “If we have a small accumulation or just cold temperatures, sometimes anti-icing can take care of all of that or a good majority of it.”

Budget cuts could limit county response

King County plans to keep significant amounts of salt, sand and de-icing agents on hand in case of a harsh winter.

The agency has about 13,000 cubic yards of sand, 600 cubic yards of salt and 45,000 gallons of de-icing material stockpiled at 10 field offices throughout the county. Planners also prepped equipment to combat ice and snow.

Despite the preparation, the Road Services Division has reduced resources to respond to snow due to budget cuts. The agency has fewer workers to operate equipment, remove debris and transport materials.

The county Road Services Division is responsible for almost 1,300 miles of snow routes from cities, suburban neighborhoods and rural areas throughout King County.

The interim agency director pledged to make every attempt to keep as many plows on the road as possible.

The county plans to focus on major roadways during regional snowstorms. The setup could mean less attention on neighborhood streets and closures for steep roads.

“Residents should identify these major arterials and heavily traveled roadways when considering the best routes to travel when a snow storm strikes,” Road Services Division Interim Manager Paulette Norman said. “Motorists should also make sure they have a full tank of gas and their vehicle has tires that offer optimal performance in snow. Finally, the best advice of all may be to postpone travel, if you are able, when a major storm strikes.”

Know before you go

City and King County emergency planners offer tips for drivers in snowy conditions:

  • Never drive around road-closure signs. Call 206-296-8100 to report problems on roads in unincorporated King County.
  • Allow ample time to reach your destination.
  • Equip your vehicle with all-season tires and carry tire chains.
  • If you must abandon your vehicle, park clear of travel lanes to allow snow equipment to pass. (The city tows vehicles left abandoned in travel lanes. Call the Issaquah Police Department nonemergency line, 837-3200, to locate vehicles after a snowstorm.)
  • Dress for the weather in case you become stranded and have to walk.
  • Use caution and maintain several car lengths’ distance behind a snowplow or sander.
  • Warn children about the dangers of sledding on hilly streets.
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