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Operation Snowstorm

Curb-to-curb plowing is just one of the issues that Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) supervisor Tom Barnes has to deal with on a snow day.

Barnes works out of the Newington Station on Cinder Bed Road, which covers Areas 6 and 7 on the plowing map. Area 6 has 898 lane miles, technically in the Lorton area including part of Springfield, and Area 7 has 725 lane miles in the Mount Vernon area. Barnes explained the curb-to-curb request to Springfield resident Susan Shirley the morning of Feb. 7, after six inches of snow fell the night before.

"We do not plow curb-to-curb. It would require four passes, the time it takes to do curb-to-curb," he said.

Maps, weather reports and plowing stages are analyzed in the snow room at VDOT on Cinder Bed Road. Enter into the equation lane miles, primary and secondary roads, contract drivers, salt and sand, and the operation starts to resemble a military command center. The Weather Channel was tuned in on the office television set.

"Based on the forecast yesterday, we had a full mobilization. By 7:30 tomorrow morning we're going to have everything done," Barnes said.

Will Nance was the map monitor for Area 6, which is primarily on the eastern side of I-95 down to Mount Vernon. Area 7 boundaries include Ox Road to the south, Burke Centre Parkway to the west and Old Keene Mill Road to the north.

"We [Newington Station] do have one of the biggest areas because of subdivision miles," Nance said.

The map areas were marked with tags that constantly changed as the morning wore on. Red was completed, green was plowed only. Blue was for plowed and sanded, yellow for sanding completed. White was for areas reviewed by monitor, and purple was for an area that received complaints.

Barnes noted the numbers of checks and balances involved in the work.

"Monitors go around making sure the job is done. It's a quality-control thing," he said.

ORANGE STATE TRUCKS make up only about 15 percent of the trucks on the road in the Newington area. Most of the 37 contract trucks, which are private and business-owned vehicles with plows on the front, come back storm after storm to assist in the plowing.

"Eighty-five percent of our fleet is made up of contracts," said Barnes. "Some of them do a real good job."

Snow contractors have to meet VDOT's standards; just any four-wheel-drive owner cannot slap a plow on his truck and do the job.

"There's liability involved," Barnes said. "You have to have certain insurance. Ninety-five percent of contractors in Northern Virginia have worked for us in past winters. We try to assign contract people in the same area time after time so they know the area. They all got to have cell phones and walkie-talkies, that's part of their contract."

Interchange engineer Larry Cloyed was on duty at the Newington Station the morning of the Feb. 6 snowfall. Road construction does not occur in the snow at the interchange, so various VDOT employees abandon other jobs during the snow emergencies to help out. Cloyed approached the snow removal with a "show must go on" explanation as far as funding is concerned. It has a separate budget.

"We will put the money into snow removal. Some years you're going to underspend, some years you'll overspend. Salt and sand save lives," he said.

Ryan Hall, VDOT spokesperson, had an overall look at the budget, maintenance and snow removal. In Virginia, $878 million is allotted for maintenance, and $48 million of that is allotted for snow removal. Before the Feb. 7 storm, six storms had used $12 million in the Northern Virginia region, which includes Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington counties. Individual cities, such as the Cities of Fairfax and Alexandria, have their own budgets.

"We've mobilized six times and used $12 million. We can reprogram some of our [maintenance] money to go to snow removal," Hall said.

This year, Richmond has had more snowfall than in years past as well, which digs into the state budget. The Northern Virginia region has 15,000 total lane miles. Hall looked at the plow widths and lane miles for the overall efforts.

"It's a huge task," he said.

With the White House, Capitol and Pentagon right up the I-95 corridor, the federal government and defense department rely heavily on transportation in this area. That's one of the driving forces, prioritizing snow removal.

"This area's very sensitive to these issues," Barnes said.

SALT AND SAND are a part of the snowplowing equation. Barnes monitors the amounts in Newington Station's storage bins. The sand comes from locations south of Fredericksburg, and the salt comes from New York and some from as far away as Africa, through the Baltimore harbor. The average price of salt is around $35 a ton. The Newington Station dome holds 3,200 tons.

Salt requires traffic to speed the melting process by creating a brine on the road. A late-night storm isn't ideal for salt because the traffic is lighter. Salt is not put down in the neighborhoods because of the damage it does to the roads, said Barnes.

He also talked about the 1996 blizzard as the exception to the rule for most of the plowing decisions. For that storm, which dumped snow on the area three different days, it was too deep for plowing on some roads.

"When the snow is higher than the height of the plow, you don't go very far," he said.

LATER ON FRIDAY MORNING, Barnes went out on a monitoring run to make sure everything was going as planned. From the constant monitoring of weather reports, Barnes noticed the evening temperatures were going to fall below freezing, so it was important to get things plowed early. Off Greeley Boulevard, he noticed some side roads that needed plowing, but the main road had been plowed.

"You see when you get in there and get it quick, you'll beat the freeze," he said, before looking down the side roads. A few cul-de-sacs hadn't been touched yet.

"I've seen enough to say this is not done. There's where you'll get your complaints," he said.

He went into a neighborhood on the northern side of Old Keene Mill Road, which is in the Van Dorn Station area, not his.

"This is good plowing,. Look at the intersection, there's nothing in the intersection," he said.

That's when Susan Shirley flagged him down. It turns out her husband, Keith, drove a plow for Barnes.

"Can we get these guys to get a little closer?" she asked, "I complained, they came back and did the streets again, but they missed my street," she said.

With over 1,600 lane miles to cover, Barnes explained the problem with time and the impending freeze that night.

"We'd love to give them curb-to-curb. This will probably be a topic of mine when I sit down with the manager," he said.

Just before noon, Barnes summed up the operation.

"It's getting there. Countywide we're probably 75 percent plowed right now," he said.