By Ted Schnell • BocaJump | Dec. 9, 2011
If Snow Command in the Elgin Public Works Department facility on Holmes Road is the nerve center of the city’s snow-removal efforts, then it is the 43 drivers, the 55 vehicles, the four mechanics and other support team members who provide the muscle.
There’s also a separate 12-member crew and their equipment, tasked with clearing downtown sidewalks.
The quality of Elgin’s snow-removal efforts has been referred to as the “gold standard,” and it’s a term its leaders use proudly. Prezel E. Hardy Sr., a street maintenance crew leader, talks of family from the Detroit area visited and being amazed at how clear streets are in the winter.
Public Works Supervisor Tom Migatz recalls tales of travelers fighting through the streets of neighboring communities after February’s blizzard to find clear driving in Elgin.
But in a time when city officials have been struggling to plug a budget gap of as much as $13 million, some have wondered if that gold standard for snow removal costs too much. In fact, the Elgin Budget Advisory Task Force had recommended the city back off that high standard to save a few bucks. Last winter, Public Works crews plowed 19,680 lane miles.
“The gold standard that we live by is something … that’s a direct reflection on their efforts and what they do out there on a daily basis during a snowstorm,” said Aaron Neal, traffic division crew leader.
It’s a standard the Elgin City Council has indicated it wants to preserve.
The 43 drivers operate in two 12-hour shifts during a snow event, and the city’s fleet of 55 trucks is enough to provide extras should one break down. Included in that fleet is a new wing plow that’s been fitted on one of the city’s large trucks and is capable of clearing two traffic lanes at once. That doubles the number of lanes plowed by the driver in a single shift. The city also maintains “The Beast,” a 1970s motor grader with a V-shaped plow blade on the front. It, too, is capable of moving massive amounts of snow in a single pass, Hardy said.
The Beast will be on standby in case the city needs it. The wing plow will be tasked to Elgin’s Far West Area.
But there’s more to their task than the stamina of the drivers and the might of the trucks. The crews not only work to clear snow from the streets, they work to deice slick roadways and work beforehand with the intent of preventing the ice from even forming.
The city has 13,000 tons of salt stored up on three permanent and one temporary salt domes located along Holmes Road, Bowes Road and Shales Parkway. Public Works Superintendent Colby Basham said earlier this week the rock salt the city purchased this cost about $750,000.
In a typical year, the city will run through 6,500 tons of salt; last year it was 10,000 tons. But a truckload of salt is expensive, and cities have searched for years for an alternative. That search resulted in the discovery that beet juice can be mixed with salt brine and sodium chloride. When sprayed on the roads, it acts as a deicing element that is more effective — and much less expensive, than rock salt.
The city’s inventory of this “Supermix” is 42,800 gallons. Basham noted earlier the city used to buy the mix until it learned it could make its own at a fraction of the cost, The city installed its own manufacturing center, which paid for itself within months, public works official said.
The Supermix is so effective, the department equipped one truck to haul only the liquid — no rock salt — this winter. That truck will be used on the city’s Southeast Side.
The difference in cost is significant — a truckload of salt is worth $600, a truckload of Supernmix is $200.
The city has a similar Supermix spreader that the city can use on downtown sidewalks to prevent icing.
Behind every operation involving machines, however, there is a crew of mechanics working to keep the machinery running, and stopping to fix it when it breaks.
Elgin has four mechanics who, for example, during February’s blizzard worked 12 hour shifts, with two on each shift. They are taking care of more than the 55 trucks dedicated to snow removal. They also care for squad cars, vans, pickups and other city-owned vehicles used by many city departments.
In addition to vehicle maintenance and repairs, these four individuals replace flow blades — last season they replaced 135 to 140 of the inch-thick metal blades that wear down just like the blades on a razor. The blades come in two parts, each weighing about 75 pounds. They also replace curb shoes — metal devices fitted to the sides of the plow blades to keep the drivers from jumping over the curb.
Migatz and Hardy said that in all, snow removal is a very complicated operation that requires coordination and communication.
But Hardy also pointed out that in Elgin, the crews have an added edge — they take pride in their work and they work as a team.