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Snow routine: SHA crews know what to expect when inclement winter weather strikes

HANOVER - When heavy snow is in the forecast, Don Welsh tends to wind up in the same place.

He will be seated in the driver's seat of a State Highway Administration snow plow awaiting the first flakes.

Many of his fellow SHA employees will be seated in the statewide operations center in Hanover closely watching traffic cameras positioned throughout the state and tracking weather conditions.

They will work long shifts. They will put in overtime. And they will keep at it until roads are clear and conditions are safe once more, no questions asked.

Everyone has a role.

For Welsh, it is clearing snow from his usual route from the intersection of Md. 140 and Md. 31 to Carroll County's Northern Landfill. It's a tiny sliver of the more than 17,000 miles of roads maintained by the State Highway Administration.

He will make one pass after the next, clearing snow, dropping salt and plowing snow as far off the traveled lanes as possible. Shifts are supposed to be 12 hours. During major events, Welsh has worked longer than that, with energy drinks and jolts of caffeine providing welcomed boosts.

If conditions deteriorate, crews will be focused on the roads where emergency first responders are most likely to navigate and the primary thoroughfares.

In absolute worst-case scenarios, crews will be taken off the roads. Crews try to avoid that though.

"We all work hard," he said. "If it's bad, we try to stay out there and keep going. If [the road conditions] get away from us, we're all in trouble. We just have the mentality to keep them cleared."

In heavy snow, plows will operate in concert with one another, with two or more next to each other to clear icy spots quicker.

Welsh knows the trouble spots. The Md. 140 bridge over Md. 97 tends to get icy. The Md. 140 hill near the Carroll-Baltimore County line can be tricky.

While Welsh is busy clearing roads, employees in the operations center in Hanover are tracking those potential spots on state roads.

The SHA has access to more than 800 traffic cameras positioned throughout the state everywhere from Frostburg to Ocean City.

The center tracks incidents, road conditions and traffic alert messages that need to be posted.

Regardless of the weather, the operations center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Employees there can watch 16 large screens showing live cameras showing real-time information on traffic and accidents.

When significant storms are on the horizon, the operations center becomes a busy place. An administrator and an engineer are typically on hand keeping an eye on the situation from the rear of the operations center. A meeting room above the operations center can also be used.

When Superstorm Sandy affected the area in October, representatives from the Federal Highway Administration and Maryland Department of Transportation were at SHA headquarters, where they could easily access data.

Traffic information gathered from the SHA's Coordinated Highways Action Response Team was passed along to Maryland Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Reisterstown.

CHART includes real-time traffic flow data, pavement temperatures and information on incidents causing traffic delays. Most of that information is available to the public at http://www.chart.state.md.us.

"We give them all the updated data they need," said Richard Dye, the CHART Systems Administrator for the State Highway Administration.

Both the drivers and the operations centers staffers will be on hand no matter how much snow falls this year. The State Highway Administration has a $41 million budget for snow removal this year and 360,000 tons of salt available to treat surfaces.

During a typical snow storm, each driver has a route, SHA spokesman Charlie Gischlar said.

"During our standard snowstorms, we have no priorities," he said. "Everybody has their routes, including folks on the interstates."

During Sandy, crews from throughout the state went to Western Maryland to help clear areas that received more than a foot of snow.

If clearing snow exceeds the SHA budget for this winter, it will not deter the organization from continuing with treating roads and removing snow and ice. The SHA will cut other maintenance projects planned for later in the fiscal year.

Welsh will keep plowing. The operations center will continue operating until the snow stops and roads are dry.

"We're never going to stop clearing snow," Gischlar said.

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