Crime

Lexington salt-truck drivers battle the elements

Alex Hicks, with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government  Division of Streets and Roads, spread salt from his salt truck on Bizzell Dr. in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, January 22, 2014. He was spending the morning responding to police requests for specific roads that needed salting and plowing. This road was a solid sheet of ice. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Alex Hicks, with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Division of Streets and Roads, spread salt from his salt truck on Bizzell Dr. in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, January 22, 2014. He was spending the morning responding to police requests for specific roads that needed salting and plowing. This road was a solid sheet of ice. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

It was so cold Wednesday morning that the salt was freezing up in the back of Alex Hicks' Lexington city salt truck almost faster he could spread it on ice-covered streets.

Hicks and other drivers had to stop periodically to have the frozen salt dug out of their trucks before continuing.

"It's been treacherous the last couple of days; it's been a handful," Hicks said from behind the wheel of his rumbling truck, which carries up to 10 tons of salt at a time.

"We would clear streets, but they'd still be wet. And it was so cold that they would just ice right back over," he said.

Hicks and other salt-truck drivers spent most of Wednesday answering emergency calls from Lexington police to spot-treat lower-priority side streets that were still solid sheets of ice.

Some were so slick in places that even Hick's heavily loaded truck was spinning its rear wheels. One salt truck actually slid off Jacks Creek Pike Tuesday night when conditions were the worst. It had to be pulled back onto the pavement.

But Rob Allen, acting deputy director of the Urban County Division of Streets and Roads, said conditions were improving on most thoroughfares by Wednesday afternoon, thanks mainly to the roughly 1,500 tons of salt that trucks had spread since early Tuesday.

"I would characterize main roads and priority roads as good, with sub-arterials, rural priority roads and lower priority neighborhoods roads as fair to good," he said.

While the bright sunshine Wednesday didn't make things warm, Allen said it did raise temperatures enough to help the salt applied overnight start working.

Allen said the plan for Wednesday night was to keep a small road crew working on streets, and bring in a full crew Thursday morning.

"There's a slight chance of additional accumulation tonight, but I think it's only about 30 percent," he said. "The overnight supervisor will have the ability to call out the entire night shift if necessary."

Even though things are improving, motorists should remain cautious, he said.

"We're still advising people to kind of treat it like an ice storm, and only drive as much as is necessary," Allen said. "We can't treat every street, even though we'd like to. We don't have the resources."

Lexington got a relatively light accumulation of snow Tuesday. But temperatures fell so quickly that the wet snow rapidly turned to ice on roadways. It's the ice that's been giving Alex Hicks and other salt truck drivers fits this week.

Wednesday morning Hicks was sent to a hill on Bizzell Drive that was so slippery that even tractor-trailer rigs couldn't climb it. It was so slick that Hicks had to back his salt truck to the bottom of the hill and then slowly start up, spewing salt as he went.

A sensor in the truck cab said the road temperature on the hill was a chilly nine degrees — still six degrees warmer than the air temperature outside.

Still, Hicks said the morning sun, coupled with additives in the salt he was spreading, would soon start melting the ice.

"The sun," he said, "is a good friend to us."

Still, Hicks had to make several runs up and down the hill to completely cover the street with salt.

He also made several slow "doughnuts" in the turnaround at the bottom of the hill, making sure that it was fully covered.

Hicks said that once the ice had turned to slush he would return and use the snowplow blade on the front of his truck to push the slop off the street.

Hicks, who has driven for the city for 16 years, has seen a bit of everything. But he admitted he was tired. He spread salt from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, and was back on the road again by 8 a.m. Wednesday.

By the time he'd finished working the hill on Bizzell Road the ice was starting to melt.

Satisfied with the result, Hicks headed back to the city salt barn off Old Frankfort Pike to get another load of salt.

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