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State road crews ready to plow through whatever winter brings

Highway administration has $41 million budget, mounds of salt and a steel wall of plows

By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

8:59 PM EST, November 19, 2012

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State highway crews have an answer to whatever winter brings our way this year: a snow-chewing, salt-spewing monster truck capable of plowing two full lanes at once.

The truck is the latest weapon in the 2,400-vehicle arsenal of the State Highway Administration, the agency charged with clearing as much blacktop and concrete as the equivalent of seven round trips to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

Officials showed off an array of flake-fighting equipment Monday at its annual show-and-tell at SHA's Statewide Operations Center in Hanover. But nothing drew a crowd like the truck with the $202,299 bright yellow plows that will be driven by two guys named Doug.

"It's a beast," said Doug Lenhart, the primary driver. "What did I say when I first saw it? I said, 'I want that.' "

"We ain't practiced yet," said Doug Kidd, his backup. "We'll practice when the snow starts."

For the folks who make a living keeping the region's roads clear, last winter made them feel as needed as a Maytag repairman. With just trace amounts of snow, it was the warmest winter on record since 1949-1950. State crews spread just one-third of the salt they normally do and didn't come close to using up the snow budget.

However, several long-range forecasts, including AccuWeather's, are calling for a snowier-than-average winter in the Mid-Atlantic, due, in part, to the return of a weak El Nino pattern. The National Weather Service isn't prepared to go there, predicting equal chances of above- or below-average temperatures and precipitation.

Whatever the weather, the SHA has budgeted $41 million, nearly $4 million more than it spent last year, but about $20 million less than it averages.

If blizzards bury the budget, "rest assured we will clear snow when it needs to be cleared, and if we need more money, will work with the legislature to get it," said Melinda Peters, SHA administrator.

As it is, the agency has stockpiled 360,000 tons of salt, 40,000 tons of sand and gravel and 900,000 gallons of salt brine.

Other state agencies and jurisdictions have laid in supplies as well.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which controls the tolled bridges and tunnels, can deploy a snow crew of about 300 and an equal number of trucks and blowers. It has stockpiled 50,000 tons of salt and 60,000 gallons of liquid magnesium chloride and salt brine.

With a budget of $2.7 million, the city's snow removal efforts include more than 300 people, 150 pieces of equipment and 15,000 tons of salt. Baltimore County has set aside $5.98 million and Howard County has budgeted $885,000. Anne Arundel County expects to spend about $2 million.

The big plow — no nickname yet — will be based at the SHA shop in Frederick County, where its creator, maintenance chief Steve Henry, works. It has three large scoops — one in front and a wing on either side — that can be operated individually or together to cover a 24-foot swath.

The "dual-wing" plow, which will be used mostly on highways, was manufactured to Henry's specifications by Henderson Manufacturing of Manchester, Iowa. SHA said if it likes how this one works, it may buy more.

"When we start working and put all three plows down," Kidd grinned, "it's going to make a statement."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com