Snowless so far

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Monday, December 12, 2011
— If the snowless weather pattern continues, John Whitcomb will get his wish: a brown Christmas.

Whitcomb is in charge of crews that must clear Janesville city streets, no matter what day it is. So he'd prefer to be with family on Christmas. He isn't always, but a guy can hope.

Southern Wisconsin has seen precious little snow so far this year. The Janesville total is 0.01 of an inch, according to Gazette records.

Compare that with 2008, when Janesville registered its highest pre-Christmas snow amount, 44.55 inches. That's according to records going back to 1948.

Those records show that the past decade has accounted for seven of the top 25 snowiest pre-Christmas periods, so residents may have gotten used to early snows.

But Whitcomb remembers 2001-04, when scant snowfalls meant little if any work for the plowers and salters in November and December.

Whitcomb and his counterparts who run the Rock and Walworth county plowing operations say they'd save money and salt if the snowless period continues, although it was difficult to say how much.

"Having nothing happen in November is a good thing. We're keeping our fingers crossed for December," said Ben Coopman, Rock County director of public works.

"It's affecting our budget positively right now, but it's very early in the season. We could pay later on," said Larry Price, operations director for the Walworth County Public Works Department. "The way I look at it, every day we have a good day, it's one day closer to spring,"

The city of Janesville's snow clearing budget was $1.1 million this calendar year. About $90,000 is left, and bills for ongoing costs remain to be paid, but "if we can avoid a major plow effort here, we should be in pretty good shape by the end of the year," Whitcomb said.

Price said workers are busy with other projects, including erecting snow fence. The fence must be installed in a narrow window, between the farmers finishing with the harvest and when snow and frost make it impossible to install any more, Price said. This year, all the fencing should be installed.

Even without snow, cold weather means work for road crews. Walworth and Rock counties sent brine-spraying trucks out Friday to spray bridge decks. The forecast called for weekend frost that could make the fast-freezing bridges slippery.

"It's money well spent," Price said, because it saves salting at night or on weekends, when overtime could be an issue.

The brine dries, and the salt sticks to the pavement until rain washes it away, Coopman said.

Walworth County makes its own brine. Rock County buys it from Dane County at a cost of about 15 cents a gallon, Coopman said.

Whitcomb points out anything could happen between now and Christmas.

"We're not even halfway through the month yet, so when we hit the halfway point, I'll start to get a little more excited," Whitcomb said Friday.

Still, a Christmas with no snowfall would be nice, Whitcomb mused.

"A lot of folks missed a lot of Christmases over the years, but that's our job. That's what we do."

Technology could help counties save money

Rock and Walworth counties should be able to save on salt and overtime this winter because of space-age technology mounted on their trucks.

The counties are among a select group that have installed Automatic Vehicle Locator equipment, known as AVL for short.

The hardware and software use the satellite-based Global Positioning System to track trucks, but the system also provides real-time information on what a truck is doing and the road's temperature, said Rock County Public Works Director Ben Coopman.

Multiple counties send the data to a company called Meridian, where a meteorologist analyzes the information, together with weather forecasts, to give managers advice on when and where to plow or salt roads, Coopman said.

Coopman said counties that received funding for the technology are those where Interstate highways are located, mostly in the southern part of the state.

Some think AVL is just to keep an eye on workers, but that's only a side benefit, said Larry Price, operations director for Walworth County Public Works Department.

The system keeps track of the amount of salt on a stretch of road, so it could tell operators that they don't need to do another pass that they otherwise might have made, Price said.

"If you can save one round of 35 trucks dumping salt, you can save some big money," Price said.

It's not just the salt. The big savings are expected to come from less overtime.

Seventeen other states already use AVL, and they've saved significant amounts of money, Price said.

Coopman said some of Rock County's trucks will have only the vehicle-locator function, while others, including those that work the Interstates, will have the more sophisticated package.

The county will pay about $15,000 for the less sophisticated locators, but the state, using a federal grant, is paying the $134,000 for the rest, Coopman said.

Last updated: 7:07 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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