Balancing Road Safety and Environmental Stewardship

Sunday, January 24, 2016, 12:14 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

The photo above shows our City’s Department of Public Works (DPW) snow and ice team—the people who clear and salt our roads when winter storms turn them dangerous. As Ron Lacasse, DPW’s Infrastructure Administrator explains, “the staff in this picture includes all areas of DPW related to the effort, including staff that plows parking lots and sidewalks as well as mechanics who keep everything serviced and repaired during a storm event. All are important pieces of the puzzle that keeps us successful.”

As I learned from talking with DPW Director Scott House, the folks at DPW have been working hard to figure out how, during icy weather, to balance road safety with environmental stewardship. Put too much salt on the roads, wetlands and rivers can be negatively impacted. Use an abrasive material like sand, not only might the roads remain too slippery, the storm sewers can be clogged and the air filled with particulate matter when the material dries and turns to dust.

“We have done a great deal of work reviewing our procedures to make sure that we are being effective while also using tax dollars efficiently and being mindful of the environment,” Lacasse told me. DPW crews “put a lot of thought into how we treat the roads to keep them safe while being mindful of the cost and environmental impacts of salt.”

Lacasse outlined for me the various steps taken by DPW to achieve the right balance: “We start by calibrating our trucks at the beginning of each season so that we know exactly how much salt we are spreading. We keep truck speeds slow when salting (typically 25 mph) to reduce the amount of salt that bounces off the road.”

In an effort to keep salt use to a minimum, crews also “monitor pavement temperature as a storm approaches and as we work a storm. A higher pavement temperature allows us to use less salt to have the same impact.” Adding liquid can help: “We add brine to our salt to help the salt work more quickly, reduce the amount of salt needed, and reduce the temperature where salt remains effective. The goal is to adjust the salt use to the conditions of each event and have the same impact on the roads.”

If you’re out relatively early in a big storm, you’ll see the City’s plows and salt trucks first along the big State roads, including Michigan Avenue, Saginaw Street, and Grand River Avenue. From there, they branch out to major city streets and then move on to clearing and salting “steep hills and sharp corners on local streets,” and then “local streets and alleys,” according to Lacasse. “By prioritizing in this way, we make sure to plow and salt our high traffic and high hazard areas first.”

In terms of numbers of trucks, Lacasse says, “We typically run one truck per route during minor snow events and two trucks per route for heavy events. We have additional smaller trucks that work on problem areas such as alleys and cul-de-sacs. On school days we also have a truck dedicated to school routes.”

As long-term Michiganders might guess, “Every storm is different depending on the wind conditions, amount of water in the snow, pavement temperature and time of day.” DPW crews “adjust the plan as needed, but ideally, we will plow first and salt after the snow has stopped. This way we are not plowing off the salt that was spread earlier if the snow continues and we have to make multiple passes over several hours to keep the roads clear. If it is especially slippery or if it is during periods of high traffic, we will salt intersections during plowing operations.” 

That said, “the best plans are only as good as the staff implementing the plan.” Both Lacasse and House expressed to me pride in East Lansing’s crews. Lacasse told me that “We have a very dedicated Lead Worker [Homer Allen] in our Street Division leading a very talented team of operators. Together we have reduced salt use by about 1,000 tons per year. The team is very proud of this accomplishment.”

DPW encourages residents who have concerns or requests to contact them. (Compliments are also never refused.) Contact information is available at the Department’s website.