By Jessica Mathews /

It may be early November but the snow is already starting to fly in parts of Michigan and plow crews are preparing for another busy winter travel season posing some unique challenges and emphasizing safety.

The latest Talking Michigan Transportation podcast focused on how road agencies are preparing for winter maintenance operations and recruiting plow drivers. It was stated that coming out of a pandemic, there’s an ongoing workforce shortage, which is having some effect on the ability to recruit and train enough drivers to keep roads clear of snow and ice. The job involves a lot of responsibility with driving such a large vehicle mixing with traffic and congestion and people driving a lot of different speeds.

MDOT Director of Communications Jeff Cranson said they try to balance mobility and safety and it’s delicate – adding he has a little bit of anxiety about going into this winter. He noted that last winter, we were still in the throes of the pandemic and driving hadn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels but now it largely has across the state. Cranson said people also started speeding like crazy and driving more carelessly during the pandemic and they don’t have any reason to think that’s going to change this winter.

Also joining the podcast were two employees described as veterans of MDOT maintenance forces. They reminded people to not crowd the plow, saying the job is already dangerous and challenging enough that involves long hours in bad weather and in many instances, “the public pushing you around”.

MDOT employee Jerry Danforth, in addition to other maintenance duties, was said to have spent a fair amount of time behind the wheel piloting a plow truck. He talked about his experiences plowing snow and the need for other drivers to keep a safe distance. Danforth said they ask that people watch out for the trucks, give them space and try not to pass on the direction they’re throwing snow as they’re dealing with challenges all the time out there - especially recruiting people.

MDOT typically puts down 450,000 tons of salt every winter and is looking at ways to reduce waste and costs as the state typically spends between $25-$30 (m) million on salt. MDOT and other states share best practices and also discussed were innovations that MDOT is studying to conserve salt use by using brine and other agricultural products, providing environmental benefits.

MDOT is expanding a program started last winter that involves applying liquid salt to three trunklines: M-43 in Grand Ledge, M-20 in Mt. Pleasant, and M-66 in Montcalm County.

The liquid is a 23% salt solution sprayed instead of spreading rock salt. It's been used for a few years in other states, and MDOT is examining the efficiency of the practice for expanded use statewide in the future. The liquid stays where it's sprayed, eliminating the "bounce and scatter" of spreading rock salt, which results in some waste. The liquid program further reduces the amount of salt being introduced into the environment. MDOT will continue to expand the liquid use as best practices are learned and the needed equipment is acquired.

A link to the podcast is provided.