By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- A simulated winter storm had highway crews running routes and testing their emergency procedures Wednesday as part of a statewide drill by the Missouri Department of Transportation.
"We have 2 to 5 inches of snow, and the temperature is between 25 and 35 degrees," Marisa Brown Ellison, communications manager for MoDOT's Northeast District, said.
In the Hannibal office, a situation room was crammed with MoDOT workers, radios, computers and maps. They were simulating a winter storm in order to do a shakedown before winter puts the agency to the test.
Kevin James, MoDOT's assistant district engineer, said doing a drill makes sense after the mild weather last year gave workers little practice. Manpower changes have added more novices this year.
"Last winter, there were very light snows and not many storms," James said. "We have some people who don't have a lot of experience plowing snow. This lets us see how long it takes to run some of the routes" while making drivers familiar with their territories.
Ellison said novice drivers are paired up with more experienced drivers who give tips on snow plowing. All maintenance employees also complete an annual winter skills training that serves as a refresher course for snow plowers. The training involves proper technique, safety measures and equipment operation.
"Our ultimate goal is to attack that first storm like we've been plowing snow all year," said Beth Wright, MoDOT's state maintenance engineer.
During winter storms, the district would operate two 12-hour shifts until roads were passable.
MoDOT has eliminated nearly 1,200 positions, closed 130 maintenance facilities and sold more than 700 pieces of equipment in the past two years. The Bolder Five-Year Direction that led to those reductions was designed to save $512 million during the first five years and more than $100 million a year thereafter. Dollars saved from salaries or recouped from equipment sales have gone back into road construction or maintenance.
The state spends an average of $42 million per winter keep the highway system clear.
James said nearly all of the district's 440 employees were participating in Wednesday's storm simulation. Those who weren't in trucks helped handle behind-the-scenes activities such as putting road conditions on the state's traveler advisory website or testing radio equipment.
"A lot of this is about communication," Ellison said.
Conference calls involving MoDOT headquarters in Jefferson City also helped coordinate between maintenance districts.
James said if he could add one thing to the snow simulation, it would involve a refresher course for the traveling public.
"It's been more than a year since a lot of people have driven in snow," James said. "We tell people to slow down, allow extra time and be aware of conditions in the weather forecast."
Road conditions are available at modot.org or 888-ASK MODOT. James said travelers who face an emergency may call *55.