SHA workers put on their winter road show

February 15, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

It is 5:40 a.m., but many of the dozen or so workers gathered at the State Highway Administration's operations center have been on the job for hours, monitoring a bank of large and larger TV screens for signs of how well officials are coping with the most challenging storm so far this year.

On the screens are constantly changing scenes of early morning traffic slogging along slushy highways across the state -- ghostly headlights cutting through snow and sleet as snowplow crews labor to clear the pavement.

"It's definitely improved in the last couple hours," says Dave Buck, a public information officer for the highway administration.

Buck, along with colleague Charlie Gischlar, is stationed at the nerve center of the state's effort to keep the highways open and safe despite what seem the determined effort of some motorists to thwart their efforts.

They are fielding the calls pouring in from radio and television stations to the high-tech facility off Dorsey Road in Hanover -- not far from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport -- and making calls of their own to set up interviews.

Meanwhile, other state workers are monitoring computer screens tracking road conditions, dispatching equipment, updating highway message signs -- "Accident Ahead" -- and preparing reports for the governor's office. Some even track salinity levels on the roads, using sensors embedded in the pavement, to see when certain stretches of highway will need a new application of salt.

When it snows or sleets or freezes over, this is where the bad news comes first.

At 5:47 a.m. a report comes in of a truck jack-knifing on Interstate 83 near Middletown Road. Workers at the center scramble to put the information up on the highway administration's Web-based traffic information system known as Chart -- Coordinated Highways Action Response Team.

From their computers, Buck and Gischlar can retrieve a wealth of factoids about Maryland's snow-removal efforts. Which school systems are closed? The answer is on their screens. If a curious reporter wants to know how many tons of salt have been used so far this year, they're ready: 86,444.

And don't worry, says Buck, there's plenty more where that came from.

For the past five to six years, all of this information has been computer-based. Before, SHA public information officers depending on hand-written notes.

Buck, with 17 years on the job, and Gischlar, with four, function like old pros. They don't need to check with higher-ups on what advice to give the public. They've seen it all before -- the same driver errors again and again.

"What you tend to see is single vehicles turning over on ramps, going too fast," Buck observes.

The information keeps flowing in:

6:07 a.m.: Disabled tractor-trailer in the road at Interstate 95 and Route 100.

6.08 a.m.: Salt truck overturned at I-95 and White Marsh Boulevard. It's not one of the SHA's trucks -- that stretch of I-95 is run by the Maryland Transportation Authority -- but Buck and Gischlar know that many reporters calling to check it out are unlikely to know the distinction.

Meanwhile, Buck and Gischlar monitor the reporters reporting on them. They chuckle over a Channel 7 report that officials are putting limestone on the roads. Limestone?

"It's amazing what the TV folks will dream up sometimes," Buck says.

At 6:17 a.m., Buck is on the air by phone with Stan Stovall of Channel 11. He tells the anchorman that average speeds -- which the SHA monitors with sensors at various locations around the state -- seem "a little bit high" for the conditions. Buck repeats the oft-heard and oft-ignored admonition that bridges and ramps freeze over before other parts of the roadway.

Doug Rose, the agency's chief engineer for operations, arrives from an inspection of highway conditions. He says the mixture of sleet and snow is more difficult to clear than snow alone.

"It's harder to plow this slushier stuff," he says, adding that one of his engineers compared the heavy mix to "a Slurpee falling from the sky."

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