ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

‘No overtime’ policy slows Minnesota plows

Laurie Blake
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Under the state's new no-overtime snowplowing strategy, the first performance of the season took an average of 2.9 hours to regain bare pavement on freeway commuter routes in the metro area, barely within the target time of one to three hours.

After the snow stopped in the two biggest storms of the season, Nov. 23 and Dec. 9, it took crews more than eight hours on average to return to bare pavement. Under old staffing practices, during a comparable storm last February, it took one hour on the same routes.

The initial results, released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), counted three ice or snow events in November and six in December.

MnDOT says it's too early to draw conclusions, because snow has been too scarce to provide patterns, which are important because snow-removal challenges in any one storm are dictated more by weather and traffic conditions than by staffing, said Bob Winter, director of district operations for MnDOT.

MnDOT views the snow-plowing season like a baseball season: it's not judged by a single game but by the averages over the entire season, Winter said.

But as an early indicator, the 2.9-hour average time to bare pavement through December does not compare favorably with the 1.3-hour average time over the course of last winter's entire plowing season.

Winter said the first report means: "Keep watching and see what happens."

If target times have not been met at the end of the season, the department will investigate.

The one-to three-hour target for regaining bare pavement (once the snow stops) is a goal MnDOT arrived at after public opinion research in the early 1990s.

The targets are less aggressive on more lightly traveled roads. For more information about statewide targets see

Snowplow drivers decide when a road has been returned to bare pavement and log the times. As defined by MnDOT, a road has been returned to bare pavement when all driving lanes are free of snow and ice between the outer edges of the wheel paths (not the shoulders). If there is a scant line of snow left between the lanes it must be less than 1 inch deep.

Plowing has been a public focus this winter because the Pawlenty administration is spending less on snow removal to spend more on road construction.

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, the state's transportation commissioner, took about $950,000 this year from what had been a $38.6 million annual budget for plowing and de-icing the state's highways.

That and other money taken from other MnDOT services and operations will pay $36.1 million a year for the debt service on $400 million borrowed to build roads.

To adjust , plow drivers have been instructed to hold down overtime. The policy translates into fewer plows on the road. Last year, crews were deployed in two 12-hour shifts with four hours of overtime built into each shift . This put half the plowing force, or about 200 plows, on the road at all times during a storm.

This year, crews have been divided into three eight-hour shifts. This puts roughly 40 percent of the force, or 180 plows, on the road between 3:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., with a drop to 20 percent of the plowing force overnight.

The reduced staffing has been tested twice so far – Nov. 23, when 5.6 inches of snow was recorded in the metro area, and Dec. 9, when 9.5 inches of snow was recorded.

After the Dec. 9 storm, which started during the Tuesday evening rush hour and continued into Wednesday morning, it took 180 plows an average of 8.6 hours to regain bare pavement.

On Nov. 23, snow started Sunday with a 16-hour snowfall that continued into Monday. Once the snow stopped, it took 186 trucks an average of 8.3 hours to return roads to bare pavement.

MnDOT compared it with a snowstorm on Feb. 2 last year, when staffing levels were higher. The storm started on a Sunday and continued into Tuesday, like the Nov. 23 storm. The Feb. 2 storm had an accumulation of 6 inches compared with 5.6 in November. Temperatures were comparable. But the results were different.

With 214 plows on the road under last year's staffing , the average time to regain bare pavement on metro commuter routes was one hour, compared with 8.3 hours with the 186 plows used in the November storm.

The department used 3,061 hours of overtime in the November storm and 2,806 hours in the February storm.

Winter said he isn't able to explain the difference.

"We don't feel it's accurate to compare based on one event last year or one event this year. The weather, the traffic, when it occurs in the cycle of the day can make a lot of difference," in snowplowing results.