Stores, schools, road crews all warming up for winter

Stores, schools, road crews all warming up for winter

CHAMPAIGN — Hand warmers? Check.

Shovel? Check.

Snowblower? Somewhere in the back of the garage, where it's sat unused since last year.

If you don't have ice melt for your walkway, you might want to add that to your list, too.

During last year's cold and snowy winter, stores couldn't stock enough ice-melting products, according to George Edwards, owner of Champaign's Do It Best hardware store. Ice-melt supplies for consumers, like road salt, were in short supply because of the inability of ships to navigate frozen rivers and the Great Lakes.

So far, so good this winter, though, he said.

Champaign-Urbana registered about 45 inches of snow last winter. This winter has seen only a trace amount, and the Climate Prediction Center's three-month outlook shows higher chances of below-average precipitation in Illinois.

With the National Weather Service calling for snow and freezing rain Saturday and a chance of snow on Sunday, area plow drivers are ready. Just not with enthusiasm.

"After last year, I'm still burned out," said Mike Robards, Urbana's snow-watch supervisor.

Robards anticipated some crews will be out tonight and Saturday. Three trucks are loaded with salt and ready to go. When it's really cold, they'll use sand or a salt-and-water solution to pretreat roads. Calcium chloride is typically used when temperatures dip below 20.

"What we learned last year is hold our salt. We're being a little conservative on our salt this year," Robards said.

Urbana has the same amount of salt as it had on hand last year — about 1,400 tons.

"Oh yeah, we've used very little salt so far," said Jeff Blue, the Champaign County highway engineer who has been worried about low highway salt supplies this year. "We're about a third of the way through winter now and we've probably used 5 percent of our salt, so that's always good news.

"Plus, we've had no substantial overtime. That's good on the budget."

Over in Champaign, the city started the season with about 6,000 tons of salt and drivers have used only a small portion of it so far, said Kris Koester of the city's public works department.

As for propane, during last year's cold winter, prices rose as demand increased throughout the country. There was plenty of propane available in other parts of the country, such as Texas and North Carolina, but companies had to have it shipped where it was in greater demand, said Chris Olson of Urbana's Illini FS, which supplies the heating fuel to homes in rural parts of the region.

Today, "supply is plentiful," he said.

Many public works crews last year worked through the Christmas and New Year's holidays, pretreating roads, plowing snow, then clearing them again. There were some stretches when road crews were going 24 hours a day with 12 hours between shifts, Koester said.

Memories of those days have not faded.

"No one's champing at the bit" to step back behind the wheel of a snow plow, Koester said. "But the plows are ready to attach to vehicles, and when it happens, we'll be ready to go."

New rules of road

This year, Champaign will be following a few new snow policies that crews tested last year:

— When the area receives four or more inches of snow, alleys will be plowed. Alleys used to be cleared on an as-needed basis or when someone called the city about an alley, according to Koester.

— City parking lots will be cleared within 12 hours of when the snowfall stops.

— Sidewalks on city property will be cleared within 12 hours post-snowfall, compared with 24 hours in previous years.

"With so many people parking in lots (and garages), whether for business or dinner, it's important to get the lots and sidewalks clear as soon as possible," Koester said.

Superintendents ready

Many schools, including Urbana, Danville and Paxton-Buckley-Loda, resume classes on Monday. Classes in Champaign start back up on Tuesday.

"My hope is we don't use any (snow days). It's a disruption of regular and extracurricular activities. Looking back to last year, almost every day (during the winter) we were rescheduling or altering schedules," said PBL schools superintendent Cliff McClure. Last year, PBL students had eight "inclement weather" days.

The PBL district stretches across five counties and 242 square miles. During snowy or extremely cold days, McClure is in touch with superintendents from nearby districts, road commissioners and school transportation officials. He considers students getting to and from bus stops, but also high school students who are driving themselves to school.

"You sigh a big sigh relief when everybody gets there," he said. And again in the evening, when his transportation director calls to report when the last extracurricular bus has made it in.

"The best thing we as superintendents can do is make sure we're communicating a lot with the entire community about why we close and how we make the decision," said Urbana Superintendent Don Owen. He and other officials said they make the call based on student safety — what is the travel to and from school like? Are the roads safe? And just how extreme will the temperatures be?

"There's not a magic number, but we look at the National Weather Service wind chill index chart," specifically when it's not safe to be outside and that's when it feels like 20 below with the wind chill, Owen said.