Roads across nearly all of Central Oregon are still snow-free, but for the Oregon Department of Transportation, Monday marked the start of winter.

Each year in the second week of November, ODOT makes the shift to winter operations. The fleet of plows and snowblowers, de-icing trucks and sanding trucks is readied for action, and employees are moved to schedules that allow for a round-the-clock response when stormy weather rolls in.

Assistant district manager Jim Scholtes and district manager for maintenance Joel McCarroll oversee much of ODOT’s winter operations in Central Oregon. They describe it as a juggling act of scheduling, doling out limited resources such as de-icer and cinders, trying to anticipate the weather, and responding to inevitable crashes and equipment breakdowns.

Even with only a dusting of snow in Bend so far this year, ODOT has been easing into winter operations in recent weeks. Crews have been up Century Drive to plow near Mount Bachelor, and de-icing trucks have been applying magnesium chloride on U.S. Highway 97 near Lava Butte.

Keeping Central Oregon highways relatively free of ice and snow cost ODOT a record $4.5 million last winter — for the three previous years, ODOT’s winter expenses averaged $2.4 million per year.

Highways 20, 26, 97 and 126 and Century Drive are ODOT’s responsibility in Central Oregon. Cities run their own plowing and sanding crews, while less-traveled roads outside of cities are maintained by the county.

Lessons learned through last year’s long and challenging winter should better prepare ODOT for the upcoming winter, Scholtes said. Having to contend with snow across the region rather than in a handful of locations forced the agency to do a better job prioritizing which routes should get plowed when, he said, and repeated storms were a good test of the benefits of liberal use of magnesium chloride.

McCarroll said ODOT has not added additional equipment in Central Oregon for this winter, or made any other dramatic changes in its approach to keeping roads safe.

TripCheck changes

Drivers who monitor road-condition cameras through ODOT’s TripCheck website or its TV station will notice some changes this year.

New cameras have been put up for this winter at Mount Bachelor, the Cow Canyon area on U.S. Highway 97 a few miles north of Madras, and at the junction of Highway 97 and state Highway 58 between Crescent and Chemult.

Existing TripCheck cameras are being modified to operate in the infrared spectrum, McCarroll said, allowing viewers to monitor road conditions even after the sun goes down.

De-icing salt

The state’s experiment in using rock salt for de-icing will not extend to Central Oregon this year. Over the past five years, the state has been expanding its use of salt in select areas.

Less corrosive than rock salt but less effective by some measures, magnesium chloride is ODOT’s preferred de-icing chemical. While rock salt is generally applied on top of ice in other states, ODOT looks to put down liquid magnesium chloride on bare pavement, preventing ice from forming in the first place. Highways where ice forms despite the use of de-icer are more easily cleared later, McCarroll said, as the chemical can prevent ice from adhering to the road surface.

Both California and Nevada seek to achieve “bare and wet” pavement during the winter, while Oregon does not. For now, ODOT will be focusing its salt use on areas near the state’s borders, so that drivers heading into Oregon won’t experience a rapid change in road conditions.

Scholtes said the rollout of the salt pilot project is partially hampered by the lack of storage facilities around the state. While cinders can be left out in the open, salt needs to be protected from the elements, and ODOT has no place to store large quantities of salt in Central Oregon.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com

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