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Wichita road crews aggressively prepare streets for storm

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, at 12:14 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, at 10:02 a.m.

There will be no Christmas repeat of last week’s accident-riddled, ice-coated Wichita traffic mess, city officials said Monday amid a thorough review of city street-clearing policies.

Public works staff began applying salt and brine solution to the city’s streets Monday morning, well ahead of the impending storm, City Manager Robert Layton said.

They won’t stop there, he said, despite forecasts that the brunt of the holiday storm would likely strike south of Wichita.

The city’s handling of last week’s storm spurred a flurry of criticism – and high-ranking apologies.

“I can’t really fault the drivers on this one,” city public works chief Alan King said. “The ice was really bad and we got the worst kind of ice at the worst time of the season, when people really aren’t into the rhythm of driving distances and things like that.”

While city crews are working on this week’s storm, city administrators are taking a hard look at city snow and ice removal policy after what officials readily admit was a failure Wednesday night and Thursday.

“We’re upping our responses to be more aggressive,” Layton said. “More staff, and more treatment earlier.

“It may be an overreaction in this case, but it’s a short-term solution until we can craft permanent changes in our snow and ice plan.”

City officials said last week they were caught by surprise by a flash-freezing storm that coated untreated city streets with ice, making travel around the city difficult until crews and the sun arrived.

At midmorning Thursday, after dozens of accidents, Mayor Carl Brewer and Layton issued a public apology for the mistake.

Layton said last week that city crews were mobilized Wednesday night into Thursday, ready to maintain intersections, hills and curves in anticipation of a light dusting of snow. Instead, the snow was preceded by rain.

At 3 a.m. Thursday, the red alert dimmed as temperatures remained above freezing and streets remained slushy. But between 6 and 7 a.m., temperatures dropped and the streets flash-froze, Layton said, catching city crews by surprise.

“It takes us about eight hours to run through the primary street grid,” King said. “If you’re going to do something, you have to guess ahead eight hours of what’s coming.

Those eight-hour shifts cost the city between $41,000 and $67,000 per event, King said.

“The problem becomes two extremes – you don’t do enough like Thursday and you get bad roads. We don’t want that,” King said.

“Or you overreact, laying sand and salt down and it melts anyway. And you know people are sensitive about you spending their money. We get probably more criticism from folks for that.”

City officials launched a debriefing on the incident, Layton said. And King will “drill down deeper” into the city’s snow and ice manual to determine if its thresholds for action are appropriate, the city manager said.

“We’re going to make some adjustments to our snow and ice plan in as scientific a way as possible,” King said. “That discussion, though, is going to take awhile. While that discussion is taking place, we’re going to temporarily ratchet up our response about a notch.”

“I’m comfortable we’re addressing it,” Layton said. “Given the same circumstances today, we’ll be overly cautious and put material down. I don’t want to waste material, because it’s expensive, but we’re going to be on it.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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