Before the sun hit the highways Tuesday to melt a thin layer of frost and ice, the Brainerd district of the State Patrol was responding to 14 vehicle accidents.
Most of the accidents were attributed to icy roads. It was while troopers and emergency personnel crews were responding to those accidents that the State Patrol realized Monday's light rain had become a sheet of ice, and that Minnesota Department of Transportation crews would be needed to sand and salt the roads.
And that's often how it works.
"Frankly we didn't know there was a problem (early Tuesday morning)," said Cathy Clark, MnDOT public affairs coordinator based in Baxter. She said it was merely a coincidence that Tuesday was a holiday, one in which most government workers at all levels have the day off. When the State Patrol called, Clark said MnDOT crews responded.
MnDOT officials Wednesday met with State Patrol officials to discuss such issues. Though the meeting was scheduled weeks ago, Clark said the timing was good to discuss how the two state agencies operated during severe weather events and how they could better communicate with each other.
On days MnDOT crews normally would have off, such as weekends and holidays, Clark said MnDOT depends upon the State Patrol to notify MnDOT of icy areas.
On normal business days there are a lot of variables that are taken into consideration before crews are sent out to plow or sand. MnDOT crews using equipment in their vehicles check weather forecasts, pavement temperature and air temperature. If there's a chance of a weather event that would require crews to plow or sand, crews will be scheduled in split shifts, said Clark.
"We simply don't have the resources" to be on the highways at all times, said Clark. "There's 2,000 lane miles in this half of the district. We can't be everywhere all the time."
It's also important to know what will and what won't work, said Clark. An example, she said, was the fact that at a temperature of 15 degrees or lower, salt won't melt ice on highways. Instead, MnDOT crews use a different chemical solution to mix into the sand.
"It's not just a given that if there's two inches of snow, as an example, we'll be out there," said Clark. "It's more of an art than it is a science. There are so many variables that go into play when looking at how to attack snow and ice, and certainly at the beginning of the season, it's different."
Like MnDOT, the Crow Wing County Highway Department often depends upon the sheriff's department to report icy roads in "off hours," said Duane Blanck, county highway engineer. On Tuesday, he said county crews didn't receive any calls from the sheriff's department.
Crow Wing County, like MnDOT, uses weather forecasts to gauge how and when crews will be out on roadways. A normal working day for the highway department starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m., said Blanck. But if there is a significant snowfall, or icy roads are reported, his crews will be out as early as 5 a.m. to meet the morning rush of traffic.
"We do rely on that information -- people calling in with their concerns," said Blanck. "The county doesn't have a bare pavement policy, but we do recognize that we will want to sand and plow at critical locations."
Most important, agreed Clark, Blanck and Brainerd State Patrol Capt. Mark Jonassen, is that people drive according to the weather conditions, use caution and slow down when roadways are snow covered or appear icy. Jonassen noted of the 14 accidents MnDOT responded to Tuesday, six were for vehicles that collided with deer.
"Even though it's icy, you have to throw into the mixture unexpected events" for motorists to be wary of, said Jonassen.
And both Clark and Blanck said their departments won't let budget concerns get in the way of making sure the roadways are clear. Instead, other projects may feel the economic pinch.
"If we're busy and need to get a job done, we just aren't going to have as much in summertime to make permanent improvements," said Blanck.
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