With more ice and snow in the weather forecast road crews go to work

February 11, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

At the road-salt outpost in Cockeysville, trucks beep and stab at a miniature Rocky Mountain of black slag, glorified kitty litter used to de-ice roads.

It's 5 a.m. Thursday, and the suburbs sleep.

Tim Burgess, 42, is the man responsible for clearing 300 miles of road-lanes in this district. He's been at Shop 61, Baltimore County's Bureau of Highways and Traffic Control for two days. During that time, he stole two hours of sleep in his county-issued Jeep Cherokee. He keeps it running while he's in the office, because it's too cold to risk cutting the engine.

"We kind of feel maligned," says Mr. Burgess, sitting at one of the four desks cornering the shop. His coffee mug says BOSS. His cap says NRA. And his eyes say UNCLE.

He gets the occasional friendly call or thank-you card, "but we catch a lot of heat," he says:

Trucks plowed a cul-de-sac and sealed a drive with snow. Can't the county do anything about this skating rink called a parking lot? And, Mr. Salt Truck Guy, your truck ran over my mailbox. You owe me one.

"For as much as we don't want this phone number to be out, it's out," he says. "And we do get blamed for a ton of mailboxes, some of which are our fault."

On Thursday, Mr. Burgess dispatched his crew at 4 a.m., as he's been doing almost every day since around Christmas. He has 27 salt trucks (five are typically grounded for repair) and 27 drivers for 27 routes. A route is about 20 streets needing about five hours of drive time to "hit" them with slag.

The county has virtually run out of salt, having used more than 36,625 tons this winter. The county used 18,000 tons in 1993. The county has also spent $1.25 million this winter to clear 2,500 miles of roads, and officials have asked the County Council for $2 million more.

It's the worst winter Mr. Burgess has seen in his native Baltimore County. When he started with the highway bureau 18 years ago, he was a crane operator. Then, he was a road construction foreman and drove salt trucks during the winter. He learned by trial and error and from the older drivers, he says. No art to it, but there is skill.

Reading from his recent pay stub, Mr. Burgess says he worked 110 overtime hours and 80 regular hours in the last two weeks. He makes $38,000 a year and speaks lovingly of retirement.

Mr. Burgess vaguely remembers being married. "I don't know what my wife looks like anymore. I told her to send me a picture," he says.

Mr. Burgess lives on a country road in northern Baltimore County close to the Prettyboy Reservoir. "I get neighbors who call me, and, sure, I call my friends [in the bureau] and we get it done if the road needs it," he says.

In the storm season, Mr. Burgess fields calls and directs his drivers. For 15 years, shop clerk Daryl Harrison has worked alongside him. She works the phones, the fax machine that trots out the forecast, and the radio, which broadcasts the chatter of drivers nicknamed Spanky, Pickle or Toad.

Ms. Harrison of Randallstown is remarkably clear-eyed, cheerful and oozes efficiency at 5 in the morning.

"I love it here," she says. Even her cheeks are rosy. "That's blush."

Shop 61 has a public-works motif. The one greasy bay harbors the trucks needing repair. Something came over Mr. Burgess last year and he connected a house trailer to the back of the shop. The drivers now have a locker room, microwave and a place to read (one magazine: Cynthia's Fitness Plan).

Around 6:30 a.m., Mr. Burgess gets in the Jeep to check the roads. He tours Sandringham Road in Cockeysville, and it doesn't look as if a salt truck has been here.

"Where you working, Ray?" he says on the radio. "Been back on Sandringham?"

Ray says he'll wait until the cars clear out before he goes back. Mr. Burgess smiles. No cars are getting off that street this morning.

"I could use some bacon about now," an anonymous driver radios headquarters.

After an hour's drive, Mr. Burgess assesses his roads: "We're not proud of them, but we've been on most of them." Daryl Harrison radios that someone called from Talbot and Morris Road to complain about ice.

"Sure it's icy. Everything is icy," Mr. Burgess says.

He drives to Morris Road off Greenspring, and sure enough, Morris and Talbot have this glazed look about them. The customer was right.

"What are you doing, Gary?" Mr. Burgess asks one of his drivers. "We need someone here. Everything is bad."

Later in the day, Ruth Maxwell, who lives near Morris and Talbot, says a yellow truck came out and did a very good job salting the road. She hasn't moved from her home, but people have been driving by just fine, she says.

"My brother-in-law kids me that there must be a politician around here because you get such good road service," says Mrs. Maxwell, 77.

Back at Shop 61, the fax machine has sputtered out the latest forecast. Continued freezing rain. An inch of sleet. This means, Mr. Burgess tells his clerk and drivers, that we are not going home tonight. Someone please make more coffee.

"I'm going to Florida," the boss says.

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