Driving down U.S. 30 at 3 a.m. in the middle of a snowstorm is not for the faint of heart.
For local and state transportation workers, it’s just another day’s work – and an important day’s work at that, clearing the way for those in the region to get to work, school or home safely.
This season, in particular, has been challenging for the hundreds of street and highway workers assigned to clearing the roadways.
“This winter has been so challenging that we’ve had crews on the roads in our district every single day and night since Christmas Eve,” said Matt Deitchley, media relations director for the Indiana Department of Transportation – LaPorte District.
The job of a transportation worker in the Northwest Indiana INDOT District involves maintaining 5,000 lane miles across 13 counties.
“In some of the most severe storms we’ve seen over the last few weeks, our crews have worked through whiteout conditions, heavy snow storms that are so severe plows were getting stuck, and extreme blowing and drifting snow,” Deitchley said. “These drivers genuinely risk their lives in a thankless job.”
During the polar vortex storm the first week of January, Deitchley said plow drivers were challenged to clear the roads while dodging abandoned vehicles throughout the Northwest Indiana district.
“In many cases, our crews had to help rescue motorists who were stuck or stranded,” he said.
Brent Dickson, assistant director of public works for the city of Valparaiso, said with the amount of snow the region has received this winter, everybody has pitched in – including himself – to keep the roads accessible.
Though his main job now is to help coordinate snow events with other city employees, he used to regularly plow the streets in a 5-ton truck.
“A fast-moving snow event enables us to cut and curb the roads quickly,” he said. “However, the slow, steady snow events that last for hours mean a long clean-up, as we need to continually clean the roads.”
The main challenge workers have faced this winter has been the consistently cold temperatures and the snow events occurring every few days, he said.
“This has been resulting in very little melting and few places to put the snow,” Dickson said. “We are currently hauling the snow to city-owned areas, removing it from Cul-de-Sacs, parking lots and intersections.”
With about 152 miles of roads within the city of Valparaiso, not including 3- and 4-lane roads, Dickson said it’s common for the job of a snow remover to include sore muscles – simply from the amount of tension they feel as they work.
“Contrary to what people think, driving a plow truck is very stressful,” he said. “Not only do you have to watch out for traffic, we have parked cars, mailboxes, joggers and pedestrians to watch out for.”
While many jobs involve a set schedule, plow drivers can be called to work any time, any day. The city typically starts with its four main plow drivers, who concentrate on the main roads. They are called if the roads need to be salted or plowed, Dickson said.
“If the weather gets worse, the remaining 12 plow drivers are called in,” he said. “We also have three drivers in pick-up trucks who handle the Cul-de-Sacs, and a crew of three who work in the downtown area.”
Depending on the storm, he said, drivers may have to work in shifts until the roads are cleared.
Deitchley said state workers typically see the same schedule, just on a larger scale.
“When storms arise, we have crews on the roads 24 hours a day in 12-hour alternating shifts,” he said.
When the weather breaks, Deitchley said instead of plowing snow, workers are swamped with other important duties – including patching potholes.