By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

VALE – The Oregon Department of Transportation will deploy new equipment and use salt in an effort to beef up its ability to keep highways open during winter snowstorms.

The highway department’s new gear is a result of lessons learned in the wake of last winter’s epic snow storms. State workers, though, aren’t the only ones preparing for the worst while hoping for the best as winter nears.

Leaders in the county’s largest cities are also organizing for winter by harnessing lessons learned the hard way last January.

A series of large winter storms rolled over the area that month and forced road closures, damaged public and private buildings and impacted the local economy.

The historic storms proved ae shock.

“It caught everyone by surprise about how severe it was,” said Tom Strandberg, a regional spokesman for the Transportation Department.

The agency will utilize two new tools this winter, Strandberg said. One is a tow plow.

“It is a double-winged plow. Typically, we haven’t used them in the past. It is real helpful for clearing off areas where you need to push snow,” said Strandberg.

The new plow is pulled behind a regular plow truck and as the truck moves down the highway a 26-foot blade swings out and covers the second lane, doing the work of two plows.

The transportation department plans to use five of the tow plows in the region. One will be stationed in Ontario.

Highway crews will also use newly-configured dual-wing plows. These retractable 10-foot blades on each side of the truck  allows crews to clear two lanes in one pass.

Rock salt will be also be dispensed along eastern Oregon highways to melt snow and ice. The salt will be used on Interstate 84 between Boardman and the Idaho border. Storage sheds for the salt are either completed nor nearly finished, Strandberg said.

Another method state highway crews will utilize are speed limit signs linked to sensors in the roadway. The sensors will alert the signs to the amount of snow and ice on the roadway and then post the appropriate speed for conditions.

Paul Woodworth, state district manager in Ontario, said last winter provided several lessons.

“I can tell you there are storms that we are not manned or equipped to be able to handle. We did get overwhelmed more than once,” said Woodworth.

Woodworth said the new equipment and the use of salt should make a difference.

Ontario city officials are heeding lessons from last season too.

“We had a great learning experience running an emergency operations center. We were open for four weeks,” said Adam Brown, Ontario city manager.

At the operations center, said Brown, daily briefings were held and action plans developed across agencies and cities when the snow hit. The emergency operations center was set up at Ontario City Hall.

“People came together and quickly learned,” said Brown. “We were facing something we are not accustomed nor equipped to deal with.”

The city, he said, plans to plow from curb to curb on its roadways, which it did not do last January. Brown said the city will also tackle plowing snow in residential areas differently.

He said the city plans to ask residents to switch where they park on the street. For example, he said one night the city will ask residents to park on one side of the street, leaving the other side open. The city will plow the open side of the street and then ask residents to move their vehicles to the newly-plowed side. The next night city plows will push snow off the other side of the street.

“Last year we had cars on the side of the street and we kind of had to snake through subdivisions and didn’t get curb to curb,” said Brown.

Creating an accessible roster of contacts was another lesson, Brown said.

“At the time, for instance, we didn’t have a list of local contractors. But we’ve put together a list and it has paid off,” he said.

Jim Maret, Nyssa city manager, said fast action is a goal now.

“We learned to get the roofs cleaned off. You need to get concerned right away when you start seeing snow accumulate. We learned, as a public works department, to stay right on top of everything,” said Maret.

Maret said changes for the Nyssa Public Works Department this winter include a refurbished sand truck and local storage of magnesium chloride for treating roads.

Last year Nyssa plow crews had to drive to Vale to get the substance to put on city streets.

“We will save manpower and time,” said Maret.

Maret said for the most part it will be business as usual for Nyssa snow plow crews this winter.

“Our crews are the most prepared for snow that I have ever seen. We are ready to go if it starts to snow,” said Maret.

Vale City Manager Lynn Findley said the severe winter showed how resilient local residents can be.

He said the Vale Public Works Department did well even during the worst of the snow squalls but said there is always room for improvement.

“I think we had a pretty good plan. We start early, we do the main streets, the bus routes and work our way out from there,” said Findley.

Clearing derelict cars off streets so trucks can plow will be a priority this winter.

For Malheur Count Road Master Richard Moulton the big lesson from last year was to have more sand on hand.

“Really last winter we were not that badly prepared. Our main challenge last winter was fuel costs. We burned so much fuel being out there so much,” said Moulton.

Besides acquiring more sand, Moulton said he budgeted more money for a short-term employee.

Moulton said the county also bought a used grader to replace the one that broke down last year.

“We will have a full line up of equipment,” said Moulton.

Moulton said his department will deploy five road graders and four plow trucks when winter hits.

Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.