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It’s still warm, but road crews getting ready for North Texas ice, snow

TXDOT is ready for snow and ice even though it's 80 degrees right now

Texas transportation agency has supplies and equipment prepped for winter weather
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Texas transportation agency has supplies and equipment prepped for winter weather

While North Texas basks in unseasonably warm temperatures, crews at the Texas Department of Transportation are preparing for a worst-case scenario of winter weather.

On Wednesday, workers at the agency’s Fort Worth district office on McCart Avenue spent hours checking stockpiles of sand, salt and other materials. They also took dozens of spreaders, sprayers, front loaders and other large vehicles for test drives to make sure they are in good working order.

The deicing preparation is an annual event, to ensure the agency’s workers are ready to respond to ice, snow or whatever other forces Mother Nature may throw onto the state’s highways.

The Texas Department of Transportation keeps 36,000 tons of sand and salt on hand to de-ice Fort Worth area roads — enough material to fill 420,000 wheelbarrows.

“The preparation starts long before the winter season itself,” said Val Lopez, agency spokesman. “We stock ourselves for a multi-day event. We typically see two or three ice storms a season. But even if we have a warm year like last year, we have to be prepared.”

Not fooled by forecasts

Even though the North Texas region is generally expected to have a warmer than normal winter, according to the National Weather Service, agencies in charge of roads must always be ready to battle frozen precipitation.

For example, the 2010-2011 winter was considered warmer than normal by official meteorological sources. But that season is remembered by many North Texans for the disastrously freak ice and snow storm in February 2011 that wreaked havoc during the week of the Super Bowl in Arlington.

The storm brought three inches of ice and the lowest temperatures in the Metroplex in 15 years, followed by a thick layer of snowfall.

Transportation department crews from other parts of the state were brought in to help local workers battle to keep roads open.

The big game still went on. Interstate 30 between Arlington, Fort Worth and Dallas was designated a Super Bowl corridor and remained open throughout the week. But in other parts of the region, motorists questioned if enough was being done to keep roads open.

On city streets, the job often falls to each municipality to take care of its roads. Fort Worth, for example, also keeps a supply of sand and salt on hand.

And the North Texas Tollway Authority takes care of the region’s toll roads.

New techniques

Transportation workers have learned over the years that some techniques work better than others to keep roads passable. Often, it depends upon the circumstances. For example, a hard layer of crusty ice on the roads deserves a different treatment than fluffy snowfall.

These days, road crews rely more on a liquid brine, made from water and salt, than they did in the past, agency spokesman Tony Hartzel said.

The preparation starts long before the winter season itself.

Val Lopez, Texas Dept. of Transportation

The brine can easily be applied to roads using the same trucks normally deployed by the department to spray herbicide, he said.

The brine can be sprayed on roads before precipitation arrives. When it dries, a thin coating of salt is left on roads — just enough to lower the freezing temperature to prevent ice from forming.

Usually, the prioroty is to prevent ice from forming on bridges and overpasses, which freeze long before surface roads.

But often, ice forms on the roads despite these efforts. In some cases, a cold rain preceding an ice storm will wash the preventive layer of salt off the road. In situations like that, a mixture of sand and magnesium chloride — a naturally occurring salt found in ancient sea beds such as Utah’s Great Salt Lake — can be applied using dump trucks with spreaders attached to their rear.

The Texas Department of Transportation keeps 36,000 tons of sand and salt on hand to deice Fort Worth area roads — enough material to fill 420,000 wheelbarrows.

In all, 140 vehicles are available to conduct deicing operations in the transportation department’s Fort Worth district, which includes Tarrant and eight other counties on the western side of Dallas-Fort Worth.

Up to 225 transportation department employees can be called in — often on just a few hours’ notice — to work 12-hour shifts in response to winter weather.

Dan Huckaby, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, talks about a warmer winter, but a icy surprise is always possible.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

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