Nathan Schwartz takes snow removal seriously.
“I consider my No. 1 job, as the head of the highway department, is to provide the roads and bridges to move around the county safely,” said Schwartz, the DeKalb County engineer. “One of my No. 1 duties is snow and ice removal.”
Schwartz said DeKalb County spends about half a million dollars each year on road salt, and about $225,000 on fuel for snow plow operations.
The county engineer is responsible for the year-round maintenance of 45 bridge structures and 190 miles of paved county highways, which connect with more than 800 miles of township roads and 141 township bridges.
Schwartz became the county engineer in 2011 after 15 years with the Ogle County Highway Department. He spoke with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg about what it takes to maintain the county’s highways.
MidWeek: How many trucks do you have?
Nathan Schwartz: We have 13 different trucks that we use on a dozen snow routes, and that allows us to have a backup in case someone goes down. Our backup is not one of our normal snow plow trucks, and it’s actually scheduled for replacement, but it’s a special truck that has a bit more power and what we call a shelfing capability, where if we have a really big drift on a shoulder, it doesn’t have to push all the snow at once. It can literally lift up that blade and provide a bit of a shelf, and then come back and hit the bottom half of it.
MW: How many miles of highways do you maintain?
NS: We have about 190 miles, and those are what I call “center line” miles. So if you have a two-lane road, you would double that to 380 miles, but on Peace Road we have five lanes on a lot of that road. So that 190 is a little bit deceiving, because when you have multiple lanes it really adds up the extra miles.
MW: Do your drivers work until the roads are all clear, or do they work in shifts?
NS: We only have one shift. We do not have the financial capability to run two different shifts, so we do not provide 24-hour service like IDOT does on the state highways. When our drivers have reached the end of a safe driving period, then we might be going home to get a little bit of sleep and then coming back to do cleanup. Typically, we will stay out from the time we start, which might be 3 in the morning so we can do one full round and hit all the roads once before people go to work in the morning, and typically we will try to stay until that evening commute is done so people can get home safely from work.
MW: How long does it take to plow a route?
NS: We might not always get the roads perfectly clear when we are driving them. If it takes us three hours to hit all the roads once and you happen to be five minutes ahead of the snow plow, that means it has been almost three hours since he was on the road last.
MW: How do you coordinate with the townships and municipalities?
NS: For the most part, each of us does our own thing. The townships have certain roads that they are responsible for, just like the county has their roads, the cities have their roads, and the state has their roads. Occasionally, someone will get in a bind and we call to help each other out. A great example would during be a snow emergency, where the sheriff’s department or an emergency vehicle might call and say, “We need to get to this location and the road is impassible at this point,” and we might go take care of it or a township might go take care of it, whoever might be available the soonest.
MW: What role does salt have in winter road maintenance?
NS: Salt is for both snow and ice. We use rock salt, where you see it being thrown from the spreader from the back of the snow plow trucks. That is being used to break up the snow and ice that is packed on the road. We do also use a salt solution, a brine, to spray the bridge decks over a tollway. If you have ever seen wet streaks across those and it’s right in the middle of the day and it’s not snowing, we will spray that to keep the frost from forming on those bridge decks. ...The bridge decks will always freeze first, before the rest of the roads.
MW: How much salt do you have on hand, and how much do you use most years?
NS: It really varies how much we have on hand, depending on what snow or ice events have occurred recently, because we have salt for ourselves as well as, I believe, 18 other agencies including townships, municipalities, and other county departments. ...We try to refill our bins as we use them. During the year, we expect to use about 4,300 tons and the townships will use approximately 2,700 tons. So, approximately 8,000 tons of salt come in and out of our salt bins each winter. We, the county, will spend about half a million dollars a year on salt.
MW: How do you get your weather information?
NS: We have a couple of different sources. First and foremost is, we always watch the news and listen to the radio and hear all the different meteorologists. Each one, of course, has a different forecast of how many inches (of snow) or what the temperature is going to be. We also have a weather service that we look at on the computer where we can look at history as well as projected hour-by-hour temperatures as well as wind speeds and direction, because the blowing and drifting snow is just as much of a problem as falling snow.
MW: I imagine that’s helpful for keeping an eye on the south part of the county.
NS: Very frequently, the weather at the north end of the county will not be the weather at the south end of the county in regards to storms, whether it’s a snow storm or rain storms or thunderstorms.
MW: If you conclude that a snow event is imminent, do you get your crews in here to wait for it to arrive?
NS: If we know that the snow is expected to start at noon and it’s in the middle of the week when our guys normally start at 7 and leave at 3:30, they will already be at work, and we will find things to keep them busy until the snow hits, and then we’ll be ready to go. If a snow event happens on a weekend, then we have people who will go and check the roads to see when the roads need to be addressed or plowed.
MW: Is there something that drivers or property owners could do to make drivers’ jobs easier?
NS: There are a couple of things, for our safety and for their safety. First, if they anticipate or notice that the roads are getting slick or snow-covered, I would recommend leaving a little bit early before they travel the roads. Drive a little slower, because you never know what the road is going to be like immediately ahead of you. ...The other thing would be to use your winter driving skills, meaning drive a little bit slower and put the distractions away and pay more attention to the road and your driving. If you do happen to come across some snow or an icy area, don’t brake abruptly or try to turn your wheel abruptly. That’s when people lose control. ...It’s better to be five minutes late than two hours late because you went into a ditch.
MW: Are you from this area originally?
NS: I moved around when I was younger because my father was in the military, and I lived in Nebraska for a number of years growing up and then I moved to Illinois. ...My family moved to Illinois when my dad retired so I went to the U of I in Champaign and then I took a job just next door to the west at Ogle County highway (department). I lived in Rochelle for almost 15 years and then when Bill Lorence, the previous county engineer, retired I became his successor, so I have been here about two and a half years now.