Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) staff continue cleanup operations in southwest Minnesota after recent storms impacted the area. MnDOT has brought in numerous contractors to assist crews in removing the many enormous drifts that have accumulated following several storms over the past few weeks. Many of the drifts were so compacted by strong winds that even motor graders with v-plows have had difficulty cutting into them. Some drifts have reached eight-to-10 feet high, and 100 yards long.

In addition to clean up efforts, MnDOT staff are out in full force tackling the March 1 snowfall, as an additional three to four inches was forecasted by the National Weather Service for the area. Heavy snow could cause difficult travel conditions this afternoon and into the evening hours.

“It’s been a challenging winter so far,” said Dave Johnston, assistant district engineer – operations, “yet our snowplow crews have persevered, going above and beyond from clearing roads to checking on motorists. I received a thank you to one plow operator from someone whose wife was in a rollover and the plow operator helped her out of the car. The public has overwhelmingly shown their appreciation through social media and we pass those comments along to our crews, most of whom haven’t had more than a day or two off in the past month. We’ve been running plows a minimum of 16 hours per day, seven days a week. They’ve been behind the wheel through the worst of it, trying to get through vast amounts of snow in whiteout conditions to prevent people from becoming stranded.”

Southwest Minnesota (District 8) operates 50 snowplows which treat and clear nearly 3,000 lane miles. The average route is sixty miles, roundtrip. Some routes are considerably longer. In difficult conditions it can take up to four hours for a snowplow operator to clear a route.

“This year’s storms have had a tremendous impact on normal operations,” said Johnston. “When the snow is falling as much as two inches per hour, or the wind is blowing 30-40 miles per hour, snowplow speeds are reduced and it can take twice as long to make one route pass. At that rate, the roads quickly become snow covered again before the first pass is completed.”

MnDOT has the responsibility to maintain our highway system and communicate irregularities of road conditions to the public. The primary means of communication is the 511 Web site at www.511mn.org, which MnDOT supervisors update as conditions change.

In addition, news releases are sent to media, as well as city and county officials so they can communicate to their folks. MnDOT is always in direct communication with Minnesota State Patrol, who receive comments and concerns from local law enforcement agencies. When warranted, the decision to close a road is a joint decision between the two state agencies.

“The public’s safety is always our number one priority,” said Johnston. “We have many factors to consider when issuing no travel advisories and road closures, of which there have been many more than usual this year. There are demands to keep state highways open for many reasons. We consider first responders who have to report to work and emergency scenes. We consider people being transported due to medical emergencies. We also need to consider motorists who are in transit and may not be aware of hazardous driving conditions ahead of them. Even when we close a road, crews are often still working to improve that road and alert state patrol to motorists who are stranded.”

Johnston urges motorists to pay attention to no travel advisories and road closures.

“We appreciate it when people follow the recommendations and stay put during bad weather,” he said. “The wind can pick up so quickly out here that with seven feet of snow on the ground in many areas, and more headed our way, many times it’s just not wise to be on the road if you don’t have to be. There have been many instances where our snowplow crews have been called to rescue stranded motorists.”

More than 70 snowplows have been hit by motorists across the state this winter. MnDOT encourages motorists to:

• Be patient and remember snowplows are working to improve road conditions for your trip.

• Stay at least 10 car lengths behind a plow, far from the snow cloud.

• Stay out of the plow’s blind spot, and pass only if it is safe to do so; be aware that plow blades extend beyond the body of the vehicle.

• Stay alert for snowplows that turn or exit frequently and often with little warning. Plows may also travel over centerlines or partially into traffic to further improve road conditions.

• Slow down to a safe speed for current conditions. Snowplows typically move at slower speeds.

• Remove all distractions and simply focus on driving.

Remember that it takes time to get roads back to good driving conditions. Crews in southwest Minnesota are generally working from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m., longer when conditions require it. Snowplow operators have much to monitor and control during plow operations, and their ability to see behind them is limited.

Johnston advises motorists to check road conditions online before traveling.

“If there is a no travel advisory or road closure in the vicinity of your travel plans, even if some of the roads are listed as okay, consider changing your plans,” he said. “Pay attention to winter weather advisories and warnings, too, because they can tell you what’s coming and help inform your decisions.”

– Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation