Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Breaking up is hard to do — Road crews work to keep streets clear

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

It’s a street fight out there.

A battle waged in rubber boots and rain gear, with steam wands and snowplows, where the enemy creeps forward to gain territory at night, and no matter how hard crews work, their efforts end up all wet.

It’s breakup on the Kenai Peninsula. The season of soggy, the damp hurdle that must be mucked through before the first glimmers of spring can sprout and germinate into the promise of summer.

Left to itself, nature takes its course. The almost 14 hours of sunlight and temperatures into the upper 30s and low 40s during the day will slowly thaw the ground and open up the streams, lakes and other waterways that will sluice away the melting piles of snow that have been stockpiled all winter.

In the meantime, it’s up to road crews to keep that process from interfering with civilization as much as possible.

“The public is our number one priority inside Soldotna, especially this time of year. We try to keep streets clear and water puddles and stuff down so they can move freely,” said Morgan Burdick, acting manager of the street maintenance department.

Breakup is one of the street maintenance department’s busiest times of year, Burdick said. It’s a constant daily battle of unclogging storm drains and culverts, shoving sodden snow back from streets and coaxing sometimes lakelike bodies of water to hang out somewhere other than the middle of the street.

The battle can last for weeks or months. This round has been going on in earnest for about three weeks now.

“Breakup depends on how sudden and dramatic it is. If we go into a freeze-thaw type cycle, where it’s cold in morning and warms up in the afternoon pushing high 30s or 40s, we’ll have quick breakup. Of course, it all depends on how dramatic that is,” said Wayne Ogle, public works director with the city of Kenai.

Ed Mallette and Gary Conradi, with Soldotna’s street maintenance department, responded to a clog on Shady Lane near the Veterans of Foreign Wars post near the end of March that was in desperate need of their attention. It was either that or call the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to stock the puddle and post signs recommending life vests be worn at all times.

The several-inches-deep puddle covered the entire road and stretched for about five vehicle lengths. There was no getting around it, only plowing through. That’s the danger of breakup driving. It’s difficult to judge the depth of the water, much less be able to tell if there’s ice, potholes or ruts on the road underneath.

Vehicles can slip, skid or hydroplane, and the water can impair visibility for the driver and whoever is near enough to get sprayed by their wake. And at night, that water turns back into ice.

“With freeze-thaw cycles, people just need to be kind of aware it’s all iced up all of a sudden where it was water before,” Ogle said. “Roads can get black ice on them in the evening. People need to be a little more mindful of that.”

Mallette and Conradi couldn’t see under the water to Shady Lane’s ice ruts, either, so they shuffled more than waded as they worked on drains on either side of the road.

They traded off between a shovel and the wand from a steam truck that is used to thaw ice from chocked-up drains and culverts, giving the water someplace else to go.

“This method is a lot nicer,” said Mallette. Before the city got the steam truck crews would find drains with a metal detector then chip away at them with a steel bar, he said. But even that wasn’t as bad as some of the tasks that fall to the maintenance crews.

“When it’s 25, 30 below and you have to do sewers. That’s probably one of the worst jobs. This is almost pleasant,” Mallette said.

Preventative maint-enance is part of the battle, which is why road crews in Kenai and Soldotna devote whatever time they have left over from plowing and sanding in the winter to scraping off ice and pushing snow berms farther back from streets and drains.

“With a lot of the maintenance and work we do over the year we don’t have near the water problems we used to,” Burdick said. “I can remember (about 25) years before on East Redoubt seeing people out there with canoes trying to get from one side to the other.”

But there’s only so much that can be done in advance.

“It’s more labor intensive when it starts breaking up. If it all happens at once, it ain’t something you can do ahead of time,” Conradi said.

“If it gets really cold at night, some of them re-freeze. Mother Nature has a lot to do with it.”

So do technology and experience. Steam trucks make a huge difference, Ogle said, as does knowing where the perennial problem spots are.

“One of the benefits is we try to know and locate them ourselves. We try to anticipate it and try to make sure it is as free as possible,” Ogle said. “But you can sometimes get fooled by the fact that it looks like it’s getting ready to do the big thaw and be done with it, then it goes back into the freeze cycle.”

Burdick said breakup has been relatively painless in Soldotna so far, with some of the worst spots already taken care of — like the moat that used to form every year on SoHi Lane.

“Things actually are going pretty good. There’s not really any hot spots for us as of yet. Most of the water spots that were deep and a problem the crews have been taking care of very well,” he said. “Our streets are starting to look really good. I know during the day after we leave they get somewhat slushy and freeze. We get some complaints of rough roads and we take care of them as soon as we get in.”

Burdick and Ogle encourage residents to call their local maintenance department to report problem areas that haven’t been addressed.

“If we don’t know about them, we can’t fix them. We take care of them as soon as we get phone calls,” Burdick said.

Just as nature is cyclical, so is the to-do list for those tasked with limiting nature’s inconveniences. As crews begin to turn the tide — literally — against breakup, it won’t be long before they’re preparing for it again.

“The city needs to transition from winter mode to spring mode and everybody wants to see the sand gone. It’s always something we’re rushing around trying to get the sweepers going,” Ogle said. “We start getting winter equipment ready about the middle of July. We’re always about a season ahead of anticipation.”

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