Keeping roads clear and safe and traffic flowing is a huge job any time of year, but with 2,100 lane miles and several mountain passes in the state’s North Central Region, clearing snow and ice – and keeping the plows running – is especially demanding.
And this year, pandemic-related staffing shortages could mean that some roads and passes could be closed longer than normal during and after big storms, said Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Communications Specialist Barbara LaBoe in an agency blog in November. The decreased staffing could also mean less attention to secondary routes and recreation areas as crews focus on higher-priority roadways.
WSDOT’s North Central Region is vast – it goes from the Cascade crest, south to Leavenworth and Othello, east to Tonasket, and north to the Canadian border.
In a typical year, WSDOT has about 1,500 people across the state in the jobs most directly connected to winter operations. But last year, pandemic-related hiring freezes and reduced revenue left the agency understaffed. Some positions were filled by temporary employees.
As of this fall, WSDOT had just 1,200 people in those winter jobs. Diesel mechanics – key for keeping winter equipment running – are in particularly high demand, LaBoe said.
WSDOT lost almost 6% of its employees after the state COVID vaccination mandate went into effect in October. The North Central Region lost 28 of its 127 employees – four retired in lieu of getting vaccinated and 24 were terminated, according to the state Office of Financial Management.
WSDOT is currently recruiting and interviewing for highway maintenance workers, WSDOT North Central Region Communications Manager Lauren Loebsack said. WSDOT is interviewing candidates in Twisp and Electric City later this month, and is still looking to fill jobs in Brewster and Electric City.
The agency will also use what it calls “soft boundaries” in the region, so that if some areas are hit harder by weather, they can redirect crews, Loebsack said.
Priorities for winter
WSDOT has about 500 snowplows and dump trucks across the state, covering more than 20,000 miles. The crews work 24/7 during winter storms, LaBoe said.
The agency’s snow and ice plan outlines priorities for winter maintenance. WSDOT uses advanced weather forecasting to predict where snow and ice will accumulate so it can pre-treat high-traffic corridors. The crews prioritize plowing for all highways, based on daily use, steep hills and sharp curves, and access to emergency services and schools.
Because of low traffic volumes in the Methow, highways here are at Level 3 priority, on a scale of 1 (highest priority) to 5. That includes Highway 20 between Winthrop and Mazama and over the Loup, as well as Highway 153. Highway 97 from Wenatchee through Brewster and Omak, which gets more traffic, is Level 2.
Roads classified as Level 2 get the same treatment as the highest-priority roads, once those roads have been treated, and as resources allow. During a snowstorm, WSDOT will apply deicing chemicals to prevent snow and ice from accumulating, and to break down snow and ice that has bonded to the roadway. WSDOT uses deicers on Level 3 and 4 roads the first pass but then relies primarily on plowing.
WSDOT is also reminding people that they need to be prepared for winter driving by having appropriate tires, chains and other winter supplies, and allowing extra time for a trip. People should clear snow and ice from windows and the roof of the vehicle and be aware of their winter driving skills.
Travelers should carry warm clothing, a blanket, extra food and water, and a flashlight during winter trips.