Ready when needed

Published 10:23 am Monday, March 15, 2010

As the weather warms and the season moves from winter to spring, Austin’s Street Department is shifting its focus from clearing roads of snow to repairing the cracks and potholes winter causes in the streets.

But not all the street department employees are in trucks clearing snow or out repairing roads. It’s city street superintendent Steve Moe’s job to plan and organize the work of the street department.

Moe has been with the street department for about 25 years, and he’s been superintendent for about 20 years. As technology has improved, Moe said it’s become easier to track weather and determine when a storm will start and end and how much snow can be expected.

Moe described the crews winter work as the most important job of the street department because keeping streets clears is important for safety in the community.

“Probably one of the most important things we do here at the city of Austin is our snow removal,” Moe said. “In the winter time, especially winters like this with the amount of snow we’ve had, it’s quite a job.”

Before and after a snow storm, Moe and other street department employees are responsible to plan for the storm and when crews will begin plowing.

“We’re looking at a snow event a day and a half, two days before it’s ever getting here,” Moe said.

When Moe started with the street department, crews didn’t have the technology to track storms themselves, they’d just follow the area forecast.

“Now we can get in the computers ourselves and watch fronts and kind of figure out if we think it’s going to be a heavy snow, if it’s just going to slide by us, percentages, time, wind direction,” he said. “We kind of know what to look for now.”

Knowing the details of a snow storm is important, because Moe said it helps him gauge when to send crews out to begin clearing the roads.

In fact, Moe has become something of an amateur meteorologist.

“In our little world, it almost seems like we can see a little better what we’re going to get in our little town of Austin better than a meteorologist or weatherman because he’s got a larger area to look to,” Moe said.

“A lot of times we can hit it pretty close,” he added.

Once a storm ends, crews focus on removing the snow. Plows have set route, and there will be about 12 plows out during a storm. In the first wave, Moe said most plows will focus on mains and secondaries — the most traveled streets in town like Oakland Avenue and First Avenue.

Other plows start in residential areas or downtown. After finishing mains and secondaries, the 12 plows each have a section of town the driver is responsible to clear, Moe said.

Following a snow storm, the street department crews work at least three days to remove the snow around odd and even parking, and they clean the downtown. Crews will then go back downtown to remove snow piles in parking lots and cul-de-sacs, and then they’ll do additional sanding.

“Any give snow event by the time it’s all said and done, we’ve probably got near a 40-hour work week clearing it,” he said.

Planning for winter begins before the snow falls. Moe said they’ll mix about 3,000 tons of salt and sand to put on the roads — 90 percent sand and 10 percent salt.

This year, Moe had to order additional sand and salt. The city can buy additional materials from a local contractor if necessary. Moe ordered an additional 3,000 tons of mixture this year, and he estimates the city has used about 5,000 tons so far. Moe said they should enough left over to make it through this season. Anything that’s left over, can be stored until next year.

As the temperatures rise and snow melts, Moe and the street crews are shifting their focus to summer road maintenance and repairs.

“We’ll be out there with a large amount of maintenance to do when we really get into spring,” he added.

Even though winter is not officially over, street maintenance has already begun. Moe said crews have been out working on patching potholes using a winter mix.

“Because of the situation with real strong freeze-thaw cycles that are going on, we’re going to have a lot of pothole problems, so we’re going to go through a lot of mix doing that,” he said.

With warming temperatures expected in the coming weeks, the snow piled up on streets around town will slowly begin to melt. Street crews have been working to clear catch basins to take on the water run off from melting snow. Crews have also cleared snow from intersections so cars can see when turning.

In the summer, the street crews will begin patch work, seal coating and overlays and different steps to maintain the roads.

“We go probably a little over and above of some communities because we own our own paver,” Moe said.

Moe has already charted out what streets the crews will focus on. Moe has determined which streets need an overlay, and which need crack sealing or pot hole repairs. If a street is scheduled to be torn out and replaced in the near future, Moe said street crews will only do minimal repairs on such streets. Work will often focus in quadrants, and Moe said they’ll focus on some streets in southwest and southeast Austin.

As the state and the city of Austin face budget cuts, Moe said the street department has cut back on materials. The street department has cut back on things like asphalt for overlaying, oil for seal coating, and he said they have fewer employees —15 — than when Moe stated, when they had more than 20.

Despite cuts, Moe said the department takes pride in clearing the streets in the winter and repairing them in the summer.

“We think we’re doing a better job every year on all our maintenance levels,” he said.