The first snow of the season in the Twin Cities brought the usual problems created by icy and snow-packed roads: fender benders, cars in the ditch and excruciatingly long commute times. It also had motorists claiming MnDOT plows were MIA.
Yet more than 150 trucks were plowing and treating metro area roads from the time the snow started falling in earnest around 3 a.m. Monday right through the rest of the day, said Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.
But it's conceivable that motorists could have spent a couple hours on the highway without seeing any sign of a plow.
Plows don't move fast and they have a lot of ground to cover. Plows travel at a top speed of about 30 miles per hour, and that's without traffic. During peak times, they move at the speed of traffic, which last week was at a snail's pace.
Trucks in the metro generally have routes about 25 miles long. In greater Minnesota, routes average from 40 to 65 miles, though one route in northeastern Minnesota is 125 miles and one in the Bemidji area is 120 miles. So using basic math, rate divided by distance tells us that it takes a plow a long time to complete its route.
"If it's going to take one hour to do its route, there is a very good chance it's way ahead of you or way behind you," Gutknecht said. "It's like people who drive by road construction sites, see people standing around leaning on a shovel and draw grand conclusions. You're taking a snapshot in time. The point is that it takes a long time to do a route. Once the snow is done [falling], we are efficient in clearing them off. When snow comes during a rush hour, it will be a challenge to get the roads clear. It will be a challenge for motorists."
By next winter, motorists may have a new tool to see plow locations in real time. MnDOT is developing and testing a system that would be integrated into its 511 information service. The new feature would operate much like one employed by the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Using Track My Plow, motorists in the Hawkeye state can hit the DOT's website and see icons showing where plows are. The system shows how many plows are out statewide, roads they are on with the direction they are headed, and whether a truck is applying chemicals or not. Trucks equipped with cameras take photographs of road conditions. Photos are updated every 10 minutes.
Iowa developed Track My Plow because, like MnDOT, it was getting questions from drivers wondering about the status of plows. It also was looking to help motorists make smarter travel decisions by presenting information in a visual format. The platform, which also shows a weather radar feed, debuted in the winter of 2013-14 and has been immensely popular, said Andrea Henry, an IDOT spokeswoman. The page got more than 22,249 views during Iowa's first snowstorm of the season, Nov. 20-21.
"Before a storm people ask if trucks are pre-treating and we say, 'Yes they are. You can look for yourself,' " she said. "People can see the dangerous and treacherous conditions. People appreciate that. They appreciate the service."
This year, MnDOT's 511 service added images from 92 Road and Weather Information stations showing current road conditions. By next year, the question of where plows are should be only a click away.