When Jon Yankovec’s phone rings in the middle of the night, he knows he’s in for a long day.
Yankovec is a plow driver for Ramsey County Public Works, and this month as the Twin Cities has been buried in its snowiest February on record, the early wake-up calls keep coming.
On more days this month than not, Yankovec has been part of a 32-plow battalion that fans out across the county — for 12 hours at a time — to keep miles and miles of roads passable.
“I love it,” Yankovec said last week from the driver’s seat of his truck as he scraped the pavement in predawn darkness along Lexington Avenue on the Shoreview-Arden Hills border. “It’s not a job for everybody.”
Plow operators working for cities, counties and the state play a critical role when winter weather strikes. Without them, Minnesota might be like many states in the south where just a few inches of snow can bring everything to a halt. Here, snow is a temporary setback cleared away by the men and women driving the big trucks.
“Winter is when we shine,” said Kent Barnard, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which has more than 1,800 full- and part-time plow operators. “Transportation touches everybody’s life, whether you are going to work or on vacation. If the plows are not out there it impacts all aspects of the economy.”
Yankovec sipped Mountain Dew and listened to the rock ’n’ roll on the radio as he guided his 50,000-pound rig with front and side blades along roads rife with challenges.
His head was constantly in motion, scanning the surroundings for pedestrians, mailboxes and stray garbage cans. He pushed several inches of snow off Lexington, County Road J and County Road 96. Then he circled back to pass over the same roads for a second time, and then a third.
“When it snows like this, you just try to keep up,” he said halfway through his shift.
It’s a taxing job that most people can appreciate, he said. But in a winter like this, not everybody has a plow driver’s back. Yankovec has had exasperated homeowners salute him with obscene gestures after depositing a fresh mound of snow in their driveways. Impatient motorists who don’t want to wait behind slow-moving plows drive perilously close. He recently had one driver hop the sidewalk to pass him.
“I think people are getting sick of the snowstorms,” he said. “People think we are out here to get in their way and make them mad. We are out here to help.”
Yankovec, a seven-year veteran, is one of Ramsey County’s best plow drivers. Last fall he won a skills competition at the Minnesota Fall Maintenance Expo where 88 plow operators from across the state were scored on their ability to complete a pre-trip safety inspection and maneuver their plows through an obstacle course.
Training and technology
Most plow operators, who often work on road maintenance crews year-round, go through training and certification before they take the wheel. For the past few years, Ramsey and Hennepin counties, the city of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Transportation have combined to offer classroom and field courses for drivers each fall, said Jerry Auge, Ramsey County’s maintenance and construction engineer.
A lot has changed since MnDOT driver Charles Quigley began plowing roads in 1974.
The trucks are sturdier and have automatic transmissions. Cabs are outfitted with enough controls and instruments to rival an airplane pilot’s cockpit. Computers provide instant information on pavement temperatures and tell drivers whether to use salt or a liquid-salt mixture and how much to put down per mile.
Even with all the advances, plow drivers often rely on instinct and past experience, as Quigley did last week in whiteout conditions on Hwy. 610 from Coon Rapids into Brooklyn Park. Staring through an ice-glazed windshield, he used the locations of sign posts, cable median barriers and windrows left from previous plows to find the edge of the road.
“We keep our speeds down because something [bad] could happen,” he said.
MnDOT says more than 40 of its plows have been involved in crashes this winter. One was hit during the Feb. 20 storm on Interstate 94 near Melrose. The crash closed the freeway for nearly three hours. No one was seriously hurt, the State Patrol said.
Quigley implored drivers to stay back several hundred feet to give plows room to operate.
There is more snow in the forecast this week, the National Weather Service said, and Quigley and Yankovec say they will be ready.
“Nobody goes anywhere without us,” Yankovec said.