SHENANGO TOWNSHIP – Walking in front of the parked snowplow truck, George Fleegle examines the snow blade and then its hydraulics.
Like a pilot inspecting his aircraft pre-flight, PennDOT snowplow drivers give their trucks a once-over before heading out on the road and again when they return. A 17-year PennDOT veteran, Fleegle’s job is to plow the eastbound and westbound lanes of the first six miles of Interstate 80 from the Ohio line into Pennsylvania. The interstate system is one of PennDOT’s top priorities.
“They don’t give this job to rookie drivers,’’ he said with a smile.
Interstate 80 has four lanes, so Fleegle’s route covers 24 lane-miles, not including the shoulders.
Behind the wheel, Fleegle cranks up his truck’s eight-gear diesel engine and heads out of PennDOT’s Shenango Township base to I-80. It’s around 1 p.m. Wednesday, and I-80 is in good shape from the prior shift plowing and salting the road.
In ugly winter conditions, PennDOT works snowplow drivers in shifts of 12 hours on, 12 hours off. They get a half-hour break and two 15-minute breaks. Drivers also may opt to take a third 15-minute break if they desire.
PennDOT activated its snowplow crews late Tuesday night to get a start on this week’s snowstorm, which dropped around five inches along Fleegle’s section of I-80. The agency also reduced I-80’s speed limit to 45 mph for most of Wednesday.
Fleegle’s mission for the day is to plow snow off I-80’s shoulders.
During wicked snowstorms, each truck uses 300 pounds of salt per lane-mile. On lighter days, the need drops to only 60 pounds per lane-mile.
Fleegle’s truck is PennDOT’s top-of-the-line snow plow. There’s a massive front plow blade and two smaller ones on each side. The side blades are perfect to pitch snow off road shoulders.
Heavily traveled roads help to remove snow, Fleegle said.
“When a road has been salted, the traffic churns it into the snow, which activates the melting process,’’ he said.
Travelers now have better access to knowledge of road conditions thanks to advances in technology.
In 2014, PennDOT introduced a feature that lets motorists monitor snowplow activity on state roads. Called Automated Vehicle Location, it tracks where trucks are and shares that in real-time on the internet.
All of PennDOT’s 2,200 owned and rented plow trucks now have that technology. Each truck sends location information by a cellular signal. It also tells whether or how much material is being spread from each truck.
The information is available to the public via 511pa.com and PennDOT’s mobile app, 511PA. Other features include weather alerts and live traffic cameras (one set of cameras monitors the I-80/I-376 West Middlesex interchange in Fleegle’s domain).
Another new technology just entering the market is automatic snow chains for trucks. The conventional method requires that chains be manually placed on each wheel – a painstaking job. But now with a push of a button from a driver, chains beneath the truck automatically come down and are put beneath the tires as it rolls along.
The technology is just hitting the market and isn’t in use yet, at least not for this PennDOT region.
A downside of the job for equipment operators such as Fleegle is that harsh weather doesn’t take holidays off.
“I’ve missed some Christmases and a couple of Thanksgivings,’’ he said. “It’s just part of the job.’’