This winter has, so far at least, been an easy one for the St. Francois County Road and Bridge Department.
This time last year the county had already spent roughly $80,000 on plowing snow and treating the roads. St. Francois County Road and Bridge Supervisor Clay Copeland said this year they have barely touched their salt supply and have only spent $14,192.
“If we would get an 8 to 10 inch snow that would stick around for a week we would spend roughly $30,000 to $40,000,” said Copeland. “That is salt, chat, mix, fuel and overtime. Last year was an exceptional year and probably our busiest in the 20 years I have worked here.”
Last year the county spent roughly $256,000 over the winter.
Once the county knows a storm is coming, they will have all the trucks ready a day or two in advance, with the exception of the ones they have on other jobs. Copeland said that they use these trucks year round with everything that they do.
“The employees know that when the winter weather hits they have to be here,” said Copeland. “There is no off time and they know to be ready to go, since it’s mandatory. If we know a storm is coming, all the trucks will be outfitted with the plows. If we have any out working on other projects, they will come back in the afternoon and be outfitted and ready to go. We can have an individual truck ready in an hour. We bring the crews in, bring in the equipment, strip the tailgate, and put the (equipment) on. Everything we have, save a couple of trucks, ... is ready to go right now.”
The county has several locations where trucks can reload while out on the snow routes. They have salt, chat and mix at a facility by the Farmington jail, they have another mix pile at the Bonne Terre shed and another storage facility in Gumbo off Highway 8 and Route P just outside of Desloge.
“Our trucks can load at those locations throughout the county and not have to drive all the way back to Farmington, to turn around and go right back out there,” said Copeland. “It is just closer and we have it stockpiled there. It saves time on their routes. We have those other storage facilities of material and operators are there to load them up.”
They also keep pure salt at the county barn that is used for the courthouse annex and juvenile center, because it will wash away. When mixing salt and chat together and putting it on the roads, the traffic, the rain and the weather will usually clear the roads after a while. But it doesn’t really work that well at the annex and they would have to sweep it up.
“We do very little pretreating on the roads because we just don’t have the resources to do it,” said Copeland. “Most of what we do is reactive and not proactive. If we know a large storm is coming, we will go out and hit some of our very dangerous hills and curves with pre-treatment, but normally we don’t. We have over 400 miles of roads to cover and if we pre-treated them all we wouldn’t have enough left to address the snow when it does come.”
“I know there are people that are unaware or maybe criticize us for not pre-treating, but when the snow falls and the roads get slick, we will be there,” said Copeland. “We have some very dangerous curves and some very steep hills that we have to deal with and occasionally we will pre-treat those.”
There are 12 snow routes that address the 400 miles of county roads and there are also two graders and three loaders. They also keep a crew of mechanics because when pushing snow and clearing the roads equipment breaks. It is putting a strain on the equipment that it doesn’t have the rest of the year and things break, so they have to be in the shop ready to go, Copeland said.
“The public needs to be patient. Someone has to be first and last on the routes,” said Copeland. “We are doing the best we can and in the snow and storms we count on our crew and they always come through. It’s when we need them the most they are at their best.”
Since the county has had an easy winter so far, it has left time available for them to work on other things. Copeland said they are in the process of preparing the roads for overlay, for paving.
“We are kind of ahead of schedule with getting the roads ready for that because we haven’t had to spend our time clearing snow off the roads,” said Copeland, “so we have been able to get a lot more done earlier, such as replacing pipes, trimming trees, ditching and addressing edges. I would say that paving this year will be done a lot earlier in the year than normal, because all this is ready.”
St. Francois County Highway Administrator Wendell Jarvis said one thing he thinks is important is that the roads are not being torn up with the freezing and thawing like last year.
“Last year we had projects we were going to do and then we had the rough winter, which changed our plans,” said Jarvis. “So we had to jump on other roads that were too rough to run on, so we had to fix them first. It completely changed our plans and this year if we don’t get any snow and it continues like it has been, we will be able to carry out our plans as they are now.”
Copeland said salt on the roads, the freezing and the thawing of water in the cracks, and trucks running on them scraping with the plow deteriorates the roads.
“It damages them to where we have to address that in the spring, so that is another thing that has helped us save money and get other projects done, because we know we are not going to have to address them in the spring like we did last year. The freezing and the thawing deteriorates our roads and we had a lot of that last year," he said.
As of right now, if they don’t get any more significant snowfall in the county, they will not have to purchase any salt next year. This will save money. Copeland added that currently they are still pretty full and all the reserves, salt and chips, have been tapped into very little this year.
“We have storage facilities to put them in and they are overflowing,” said Copeland. “We did that in preparation for another bad winter and we were ready. "The salt the county has was purchased early in the off season at $80 a ton, which was shipped over from Egypt.”
No one had salt this past spring when they bid it and they went out on a limb by purchasing 80 tons off of a barge from a salt company in Egypt. It has panned out well for the county and they got it cheaper than most places, he said.
The county is also currently doing a salt pilot program with the North County School District. He said West County and Farmington plan on coming on board, which is a very good deal for them since they normally purchase it for roughly $14 a bag and they will be getting it at cost from the county at $80 a ton.