Local highway departments weather winter

Local municipalities have been particularly busy with snow removal this winter. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Local municipalities have been particularly busy with snow removal this winter. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

There’s nothing quite so frustrating as having a snow plow come by and bury one’s sidewalk and driveway apron after spending a good long time clearing it with a shovel or snow blower. Unless, of course, one is the offending snow plow operator. The challenges facing the municipal highway employees who keep the roads clear are legion: low visibility, dangerous driving conditions, parked and moving cars, garbage cans left in the road…and after a plowing shift which can sometimes mean 12 hours or more behind the wheel, having to shovel one’s own driveway, which has almost certainly also been buried by a passing snow plow.

This winter has delivered snow mostly on the weekends, which is murder on local highway budgets (where workers collect overtime), but also on the workers themselves. “It used to be that the guys wanted the overtime,” said Chris Marx, highway superintendent for New Paltz. But, “now they don’t want anything to do with it. Fourteen hours straight in a truck wears on you.” Being called at 3 a.m., or on Christmas morning while preparing to spend time with the family, are part of the job expectations for a highway worker in winter. And while the bad weather started later this year than some, it’s turning out no different than other recent years.


Veteran workers say that it’s not the weather that’s made the job harder, it’s the traffic. People used to stay home during a snow event, but now there’s a sense of urgency which has resulted in many more drivers out in all conditions. Those drivers can extend how long it takes a plow operator to complete one circuit of an assigned route. He (highway workers in the area are overwhelmingly, if not entirely, male) can find himself waiting to turn onto a major road like Route 9W or 299, be caught behind a car moving slowly because the road ahead is still unplowed or find himself being followed closely by a driver seeking a safe haven and unable to back up when he needs to.

As the tendency towards more winter driving has progressed, the standards for plowing have changed. Thirty years ago, a plowed road would still be white because there was an inch or more of packed snow left behind, but most highway departments are now asked to get down to bare pavement. Not only are people driving more, today’s all-season tires have all but replaced the annual tradition of having the mechanic put snow tires and chains on the car.

The equipment itself can cause problems. There are still a handful of municipal snow plows in the area that were built when Reagan was president, and breakdowns during a storm can lead to significant delays in plowing as the truck is fixed by the side of the road, or towed back for repairs at the highway garage. As Lloyd highway superintendent Rich Klotz explained, it’s only realistic to expect 10-15 years out of a plow truck, given the cold weather, constant bumps into hidden curbs and the tremendous weight in salt and sand (or ground stone, according to the highway workers) that they carry.

Newer trucks tend to be more resistant to corrosion by salt and less likely overall to break down, but they have challenges of their own: for some reason, their windshields tend to fog up more quickly, which is why many plow drivers keep the cab windows down no matter the weather and why you should always check if the windshields are fog-proof when looking for windshield repair quotes in your area.

Tom Marion, a working supervisor in the Lloyd highway department, recalled one unpleasant consequence of driving with the windows open: “I had someone shoot me with a snow blower — right in my ear,” he said.

Salt may cause problems for the trucks, but a greater problem for many local towns is getting more this year. “Getting salt has been difficult, but [we have] plenty here right,” said Gardiner’s superintendent Brian Stiscia. Unlike the sand, which is obtained locally, salt is shipped down the Hudson, and ice on that river has seriously constrained the supply.

For all its problems, town workers value how it makes melting a little bit easier, although how they use it varies. Rosendale highway superintendent Robert Gallagher mixes one part salt to four parts sand, and reclaims most of the ground stone to use again during the spring road cleaning. Over in Gardiner, Stiscia uses a 2:1 ratio. Both Klotz and Marx prefer a 3:1 ratio for their roads, with some exceptions. In the hamlet of Highland, Klotz uses 100% salt, which is what Marx would like to do entirely. “That would require changing over a lot of the equipment we use, but no matter how much sand we put down, we still use the same amount of salt,” he explained. New Paltz has also been moving towards pre-treating road surfaces with a sticky brine solution of salt and water, which has been found to reduce icing, a process started by the previous superintendent Mike Nielson.

Bleu Terwilliger is the superintendent of public works in the Village of New Paltz, which has many of the same snow-removal challenges as the hamlets of Highland and Rosendale. Night owls living along the main streets of any of those places might get a chance to see the early-morning snow-removal push that generally follows big storms, when parking spaces are reclaimed and the corners of heavily traveled intersections are given some visibility back thanks to a fleet of Bobcats, dump trucks and similar equipment. Terwilliger said that a big issue for his crew are the village sidewalks. No, they don’t shovel the snow — it’s a rare municipal worker in this highway-focused society who is expected to do that — but they do try not to bury them. “We go as slow as we possibly can,” he said, so that the property owners have a fighting chance to get them cleared within the 24-hour window provided under village law.

Many of the challenges for keeping the roads clear are social, like the greater tendency of drivers to be out in all weather conditions. All area towns have parking laws designed to keep the streets for plows, but often the trucks must swerve in and out regardless. Superintendents are reluctant to have cars towed, but several are planning on doing so if the problem continues. Garbage cans are another obstacle: they’re not permitted to be in the road, but when snow piles high, residents often put them there rather than atop the mounds, which means they can be buried or hit if the driver doesn’t see them in time. Mailboxes are actually quite rarely hit by a plow, but the force of the snow coming off of it can lead to damage and complaints. While state law is clear that no municipality is responsible for damage to a mailbox placed in the right-of-way, repairs are sometimes made as an act of courtesy. According to Stiscia, any mailboxes which comply with Gardiner’s design standards — at least 48″ above the road and set two feet back — are very unlikely to be damaged because the plow blade will pass harmlessly underneath.

For all the long shifts under harrowing conditions, including sometimes short-tempered residents, there’s also appreciation showed for these local heroes. Coffee, donuts and other treats are brought to the highway garages by people who appreciate the job they do, even if their efforts can make shoveling the driveway a lot harder from time to time.