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A front-end loader fills a Rock County snowplow truck with a mix of salt and sand at the county’s highway division complex Wednesday afternoon as county crews continued to tackle cleanup of miles of county, town and state roads after 3 inches of snow fell Tuesday. One highway division official said the county has enough plow truck drivers to keep up with snowfalls this winter. But if a number of plow truck drivers retire as expected and fewer trained and licensed snowplow drivers apply to replace them, the county could see a staff shortfall in its snowplow ranks in the coming years.

JANESVILLE

Residents of the one-lane, blacktop hinterlands of Rock County won’t notice it this winter, but in the future, it might take a bit longer for snowplow crews to reach them.

That’ll be if the county’s highway division doesn’t have more luck recruiting candidates to fill plow truck driver vacancies the county believes could come in the next few years amid a wave of expected retirements.

Rock County Assistant Public Works Director Nick Elmer said the county’s seen a turnover of about half of its plow truck staff in the last few years as a growing number of workers retire. At the same time, Elmer said, the county has seen a marked decrease in new applicants for truck driver openings in the county’s highway division.

Before a few years ago, the county would average a pool of about 120 applicants for plow truck driver openings. But the pool has shrunk as fewer younger drivers locally seem to have training or commercial driver’s licenses, Elmer said.

A future shortfall in experienced plow drivers would be doubly felt in any county given that the state Department of Transportation does not own plows or employ plow drivers. County highway departments statewide shoulder the responsibility to clear miles of state highways in addition to hundreds of miles of county and town roads.

In Rock County, Elmer said, the highway division has 13 county routes, 17 township routes and 30 state highway routes—including stretches of Interstate 90/39.

Elmer said each route assigned to a county plow driver is geared to take between 90 minutes and two hours to clear of snow. That’s a schedule that ensures that the county’s 60 or so plow drivers can handle clear roadways after a moderate snowfall within a couple of days.

That model assumes that the county’s plow operators are experienced—some with decades of winter snow plowing under their belts—and that there are enough plow drivers to handle deluges of snow covering all county highways, roadways and bridges.

So far, the county has enough drivers to shoulder the burden.

But Elmer said the county now is discussing ways it could tweak or augment internal hiring and training protocols in hopes of cultivating a more expansive pipeline of plow drivers.

“Right now, it hasn’t been an issue. We’ve still been able to get guys in. But it’s getting harder and harder. Some things we’re having some internal discussions about is the (commercial driver’s license) component,” Elmer said.

He added, “We’re discussing if we need to start investigating some training opportunities, internally. One question is if ... we have to hire applicants without a CDL, how could we get them one?”

Until this week, Rock County has had little snowfall. After about three inches of snow and slush covered the area Wednesday, plow crews were kept running and gunning well into Thursday.

If long-range forecasts hold, Saturday—New Year’s Day—could bring another winter squall with 3 to 6 inches of snow, blowing and drifting over roadways, according to forecasts by AccuWeather.\

Such snowfalls—particularly those with freezing or blowing snow that roll out over multiple days—can take days to clear countywide, Elmer said.

“Some of these events can turn into three, four or five days in a row, and then you’ve tapped all of your extra plow guys. And that’s when you start losing ground,” he said. “And when that happens, you’ve got to start lengthening routes or taking levels of service down, and those are things that we don’t like to do.”

Elmer added, “The (higher traffic-volume) Interstate routes we’re responsible for requires the contracted services. A low-volume county road may have its plowing cycle time stretch out, so we can cover it and the Interstate.”

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