A number of city and county residents are expressing dissatisfaction with recent snow-removal efforts.

Social media postings, as well as Onion submissions to The Republic, reflected some residents’ opinions that road- and street-clearing efforts over the past week left much to be desired.

For example, a Nashville, Indiana, man said it was an unexpected patch of ice Wednesday just outside of Columbus that was responsible for his truck sliding out of control and dropping 10 feet onto the banks of the Driftwood River.

A day after his accident, Garry Pugh rejected a law enforcement officer’s suggestion that he was driving too fast on County Road 325W.

“I was driving slow,” Pugh said. “The pavement looked dry, but even so, I slowed down before I went into a spin.”

Complaints have included large pile-ups of snow blocking driveways or mailboxes and residential streets left untreated for days after Monday’s snow.

The Bartholomew County Highway Department also heard a rare complaint recently that it is replacing equipment too often, commissioner Carl Lienhoop said.

But residents expecting optimal snow- and ice-removal efforts are working against their own interests with such criticism, said Bryan Burton, Columbus’ director of public works.

When equipment is routinely replaced, it results in fewer breakdowns, which means more plows are clearing streets and roads, Burton said.

But the real challenge in snow removal with the two most recent storms had nothing to do with equipment, Burton and county highway engineer Danny Hollander said.

The issue was all-day winter storms, as opposed to half-day or overnight ice and snow events, they said.

“If we get six inches in six hours, we can clear the main streets once and move on,” Burton said. “But if six inches is spread out over an entire day, we have to wait for the storm to pass to make progress.”

During all-day winter storm events, you can plow a main road, drive around the block, and come back to find it’s all covered up again, Hollander said. That is especially true in the flat, open fields of northern Bartholomew County, he said.

“You may be fighting a losing battle, but you have to keep fighting it,” he said.

Both the Jan. 12 and 15 storms were all-day events, which prevented county and city crews from reaching secondary roads and streets in a timely fashion, Hollander said.

“That upsets people who live in rural subdivisions approachable by only secondary roads,” Hollander said.

What hit

To put the recent efforts into perspective, Burton said road crews were not fighting two different storms — but four separate battles over a four-day period:

Jan. 12: All-day ice storm (treatment made)

Jan. 12-13: Snow (plowing required)

Jan. 13-14: Frigid temperatures refreeze all precipitation, leaving thick layers of ice (different equipment and excessive time required).

Jan. 15: All-day snow (plowing required)

That combination of obstacles explains why it became impossible to clear all the ice off all of the pavement, Burton said.

County road crews occasionally can’t even see where a snow-covered road is, except for mailboxes and utility poles, Hollander said. Those markers are usually only available during daylight hours, he said.

If crews spend up to 12 hours clearing roads the entire day, only to be ordered to clear everything again immediately after an all-day storm is over, they are exhausted and far more prone to making potentially dangerous mistakes, Hollander said.

While Burton and Hollander agree the level of criticism aimed at the county’s efforts is usually higher than those made against city crews, they believe some context is necessary.

While the city is responsible for clearing 262 miles of streets, the county highway department is responsible for more than 700 miles — almost three times the area to cover.

Besides road crews, the city has trained sanitation and traffic personnel who are able to assist in snow-removal efforts, Burton said.

In contrast, the county has 15 regular staffers and three mechanics to cover all areas at all times, Hollander said.

Although some outside contractors are willing to help, county officials resort to using them primarily for extreme emergencies, he said.

The issue with salt

Due to the presence of storm sewers, the effective use of pure salt on city streets to melt ice and snow causes little to no environmental harm, Burton said.

But if applied in rural areas and allowed to wash into agricultural fields, the pure salt would wind up in lakes, streams and rivers before ending up in groundwater supplies, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That, as well as economic considerations, is why the mixture spread by county crews engaged in snow and ice removal is no more than one-third salt. Hollander said.

With buildings and structures spread throughout Columbus, drifting snow is far less of a worry for city crews than county crews, Burton said.

And with greater financial resources, the city doesn’t worry as much about running out of salt before spring arrives as the county does, Burton said.

Although the county isn’t worried at this point, there is reason for some degree of concern, Hollander said.

The recent winter storms required the county highway department to use 1,947 tons of a salt/sand mixture, Hollander reported.

After using more than 500 tons of salt in that mix, about 1,200 tons remain in the county’s salt barn, as well as an equal amount available through suppliers, Hollander said.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.