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Taking Columbus by storm

  • SIMA
- Posted: February 1, 2014
By Cheryl Higley

The city of Columbus Snow Warriors have to answer to a lot of customers - nearly 810,000 residents call the largest city in Ohio home. Each winter, all eyes are on the teams responsible for delivering snow & ice management services on more than 227 square miles of roadways. Led by Shane Mark, transportation operations coordinator in the Division of Planning and Operations, the Snow Warriors - many having been with the city for several years - have turned the science of snow removal into an art.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t talk about snow & ice control. Our snow plan is a living document that evolves as needed so that we can provide the best level of services with the money, manpower and equipment we have available,” Mark says.

While the municipality works in lane miles and has access to technologies and resources most private contractors only dream about, the city contends with many of the same challenges and frustrations as private contractors when it comes to snow & ice management services.

Columbus 1
(From left) Tim Baker, Ray Browning and Shane Mark are at the helm of the city of Columbus’ Snow Command Center during winter events.

Weather uncertainty
The city of Columbus averages 28 inches of snow, but because of the topography every storm presents itself differently. The area is impacted by the Bellefontaine Ridge, which is in west-central Ohio. Storms that track to the northeast from the west/southwest will hit the ridge and either pass over with the winds aloft or drop off the ridge and gain intensity. The second factor the snow teams must contend with is the difference in precipitation north and south of Interstate 70, which runs through the city.

“We see a lot more rain/snow mix and less accumulation south of I-70 than we do north of the city,” Mark notes.

The city uses a variety of tools to track the weather, including local media sources; value-added weather reports specific to Columbus; road weather information systems that track pavement temperatures, wind speeds, traffic, etc.; and the city’s traffic management center, which shows footage from traffic cameras throughout the city.

In addition, the city will use the Ohio Department of Transportation’s free tracking tool that provides up-to-the-minute weather-related conditions. “If we know a storm is coming in from the west and traveling the I-70 corridor, we can use OHgo to look at Dayton and get a better jump on what is coming our way,” Mark explains.

Zone coverage
Because of the uncertainty of the weather and the size of the area it must service, the city has established five outposts that are strategically located within the city and its outskirts. Each of those outposts is responsible for a certain number of maintenance zones to ensure a timely and efficient response. Equipment, a salt barn, brine tanks and teams made up of the city’s 114 employee operators are staged at the outposts. The main outpost houses the city’s growing brine-making operations.

Mark said once the storm hits, the assistant outpost manager filters information to him and his supervisors, advising them of any issues. They keep in constant contact so that if other outposts are seeing more precipitation, the team can reallocate resources to lend a hand.

“A lot of facilities have been in place for a number of years, some 20 years or longer,” says Tim Baker, street maintenance manager. He and Ray Browning oversee the implementation of the city’s snow plan. “As the city grows, we have to look at moving facilities from time to time to accommodate that growth,” Baker adds.

Managing expectations

Mark says the biggest challenge the city faces is the citizens’ desire for bare, wet pavement at all times. While he says the city, along with the Franklin County engineers and Ohio Department of Transportation, do an efficient job of managing the snow & ice on the city’s streets and freeways, the enormity of the task - and the logistics that are involved - make achieving that level of service difficult.

“Most of the storms this year have started at 4 a.m. and hit the morning rush, when the most vehicles are traveling to or from work,” Mark says. “The snow is coming down, but they expect clear, wet pavement. We understand their frustrations - we drive those same roads - but our goal is to keep the roads open and the drivers safe. Once the snow stops and we go into cleanup mode, we can get them to clear and wet.”

Educating the public
Rick Tilton, Department of Public Service assistant director, says getting the city’s residents to understand how the city approaches snow & ice management has gone a long way toward reducing complaints and increasing winter weather tolerance. Before each snow event, Tilton sends a fact sheet to the media, neighborhood groups, Ohio State University, Franklin County officials and others detailing the upcoming event and the city’s planned response. Those facts are also pushed out through the city’s social media channels.

The city has also made a concerted effort to explain its systematic approach to clearing roadways in a certain order, starting with the high-volume, high-traffic freeways and arterial streets and finishing with low-traffic, low-speed residential streets.

“We have really made a significant effort to be out there educating the public,” Tilton says. “They have a better understanding of how we do the job, and it’s working in our favor. We’re receiving many more compliments than complaints. It’s easy to take Snow Warriors for granted, but when you look at what they do you gain a better appreciation for their efforts.” 
Growing use of brine reduces costs, increases service levels 
The city of Columbus is taking an aggressive approach with its use of salt brine as part of its snow operations. Tim Baker, street maintenance manager, says the city began experimenting with brine 10-12 years ago when it constructed its own brine maker. As the city began to rely more heavily on the product, it needed a bigger, more versatile machine. The city purchased a new BrineXtreme machine for this season, which allows the team to customize blends based on the type of event that is expected.

“Part of our snow plan outlines what materials will be used based on the conditions,” says Shane Mark, transportation operations coordinator in the Division of Planning and Operations. “Before we had our brine-making capabilities, our only option was to pretreat the salt with liquid calcium, which was ex-pensive. Now it costs us roughly 4 to 8 cents to make a gallon of brine, depending on the mixture.”

Baker says relying more heavily on brine has allowed the city to cut down on its salt usage, but he admits it wasn’t an easy sell for some of the employees and especially for the public. Mark says the city has also added beet juice to its toolbox. They treat with beet juice every storm, primarily in the down-town business district and on the limited access freeway system. The city has the capability to store more than 17,000 gallons of beet juice between three of its five outposts.

“It’s a productive and efficient way to fight snow & ice. People are used to seeing that salt fly off the spreader as evidence that you’re doing your job. As people see the brine working and realize we’re using less salt, they are starting to embrace it.”

Columbus 3 Columbus 2
Depending on the conditions, the city of Columbus custom blends its liquid production with the new BrineXtreme. The city primarily uses salt brine and beet juice for its winter events.

By the numbers
  • 58,000 Gallons: The city’s salt brine storage capacity.
  • 27,000 Tons: The amount of salt the city had on hand before the start of the season.
  • 6,381: Lane miles of roadway that the city of Columbus maintains, which is
    more than the state’s two other largest cities (Cleveland and Cincinnati) combined. In linear miles (2,064), it is approximately the distance between Columbus and Las Vegas.
  • 227: Square miles the city services. The next closest city is Cleveland, with 82 square miles.
  • 196: The number of maintenance zones the city is broken into for snow & ice management routing.
  • 114: Number of equipment operators that perform snow & ice management in the city. It also has cross-trained employees from other service-related departments in reserve.
  • Every 15 seconds: How often the locations of all of the city’s trucks are refreshed in real time through the use of the city’s Warrior Watch GPS system.
  • 5: Number of outposts strategically placed throughout the city to ensure quick deployment of snow & ice management resources.
Columbus 5

High-tech Command Center is base of Columbus’ snow operations
The city of Columbus’ Snow Warriors are managed from the Snow Operations Command Center, which is part of the city’s new 7,556-sq.-ft. Traffic Management Center.

Shane Mark and his operations staff use state-of-the-art equipment to monitor the city’s snowplow trucks. They use six 60-inch monitors to view all the traffic cameras in the city, along with weather data and the city’s Warrior Watch system, which allows the managers to ensure the city’s snow plan is properly executed.

“The GPS technology allows us to resolve citizen complaints because we can verify the data on each truck in the fleet,” Mark says. “We can see a better overall picture of our operations and make better decisions to work more efficiently.” 

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Public to private transportation
Municipal and private snow contractors have more in common than you might think, particularly as it relates to the challenges they face in getting the job done right:
  • Educate your clients on your snow plan, including your deicing/anti-icing plans. Don’t ignore the power of social media to help get the word out.
  • Use strategic routing and equipment/materials staging for more efficient response.
  • An organized central command post will help keep operations running smoothly.
  • Use weather software and other technology when you can to help execute your plan.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the use of liquids. Used properly they can go a long way toward reducing costs and increasing service levels.
Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine.
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