By Sami Mirza
The Virginia Department of Transportation has a message for residents of south-central Virginia: winter is coming, and VDOT is ready.
“We have our plan in place, and now we just need to see what the winter throws at us weather-wise,” said Len Stevens, communications manager with VDOT’s Lynchburg district, which stretches from Nelson County in the north to Danville and Halifax in the south, and from Lynchburg in the west to Cumberland and Prince Edward counties in the east.
Stevens said the district has budgeted $7 million to respond to adverse winter weather.
“Just in the Lynchburg District, we have more than 17,000 lane miles that we cover,” Stevens explained. “We have more than 540 pieces of snow removal equipment, and more than 500 VDOT and contract employees are available to be called out for snow removal.”
Stevens added this winter can be expected, “to be a little bit warmer.”
“That does not necessarily mean that we won’t have a major storm: even if we have a winter that overall is warmer and has lower precipitation than past winters, it doesn’t mean that we won’t have a massive storm that comes in and dumps several inches, or, even worse, freezing rain, which I think is the biggest nightmare,” Stevens stated. “Whatever the predictions for the weather coming up, I certainly think we need to be on our toes and watch the weather forecast very carefully.”
According to Stevens, a key part of the preparation has been understanding the roads in the district and conducting “dry runs” so that crews can familiarize themselves with their exact routes.
“We even stage equipment in certain trouble areas where, say, we have an uphill slope, and we know that this is where the tractor-trailers tend to get bogged down — we’ll have equipment waiting right there, and all we need to do is get a driver out there and they’ll get into it and get going,” Stevens said.
The expectation, Stevens further explained, is to have all roads passable 48 hours after a storm ends, though he noted that “passable” means that the road may still have some snow on it and that more-traveled roads will be prioritized.
“Sometimes we get complaints that, ‘you haven’t been down my road yet,’ but if it’s a road that’s much less traveled, it’s not going to get as much attention,” Stevens said.
Stevens added that VDOT has stockpiled tens of thousands of tons of salt and hundreds of thousands of gallons of salt brine. Salt, salt brine and other chemicals like chloride are typically applied to snow-covered roads to melt snow and ice and keep the lanes clear.
In addition to the reserves available, Stevens said that the department has acquired a pair of new brine-making machines that he estimated will cut the time needed to produce brine in half.
“We have two of them in the district — one in the Chatham area and one right here in the Lynchburg district headquarters — where we can make brine at a much faster rate,” Stevens said. “It’s all computerized, we’ve moved from doing it more manually in technology that’s been around since the 1950s, to a computer-operated system that will mainly save us a lot of time.”
Stevens recommended that drivers and residents reach out if they notice any problems with a specific road, either by calling VDOT at (800)FOR-ROAD — (800)367-7623 — or visiting my.vdot.virginia.gov. He also pointed to the 511 Virginia traffic information service — found at 511virginia.org or by calling 511— as another good way to find out about road conditions.
“We want everyone to please pay attention to the weather forecasts,” Stevens said. “The safest place to be during a major winter storm is indoors. About 70% of deaths related to ice and snow occur in automobiles. That fact alone should keep people off the roads when conditions get really bad.”