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Caught between winter and spring, public works staff deals with seasons

Madawaska Public Works Director Yves Lizotte points out the level of molasses in an outdoor tank, Thursday, March 1, at the department's garage. Public Works is trying a new system that uses molasses to help its sand/salt mixture adhere better to winter roads. (Don Eno | SJVT/FhF)

Madawaska Public Works Director Yves Lizotte points out the level of molasses in an outdoor tank, Thursday, March 1, at the department’s garage. Public Works is trying a new system that uses molasses to help its sand/salt mixture adhere better to winter roads. (Don Eno | SJVT/FhF)

MADAWASKA, Maine — The recent thaw, which has forced some local ski areas to temporarily shut down, has come to an end. The National Weather Service is forecasting daytime highs to reach 13º F on Friday and only 7º F on Saturday. Above freezing temperatures are only expected to return Tuesday and Wednesday next week.

That fickle weather is something local Public Works departments have to deal with. One day,  Madawaska Public Works Director Yves Lizotte is dealing with black ice, another morning it is a foot of fresh snow, and another day it may be potholes and loose pavement due to excessive melting.

Where does the winter snow go? Much of it Madawaska ends up here, in a snow yard near the town's Public Works garage. (Don Eno | SJVT/FhF)

Where does the winter snow go? Much of it Madawaska ends up here, in a snow yard near the town’s Public Works garage. (Don Eno | SJVT/FhF)

With nine full-time employees to man the four plow trucks, snow blower and other equipment, Lizotte’s department does the best they can to clear and maintain approximately 135 miles of town road spread across a wide area.

“We try to keep the costs down,” Lizotte said while sitting in his office, Thursday, March 1. “But, if it snows or the roads are icy we need to go out.”

This week, Lizotte and his crew were trying to put the finishing touches on a new system that he said would improve the application of sand and salt to winter roads. Based on what they have seen at other departments, including Caribou’s Public Works department, Madawaska is installing a system on two plow trucks that enables the operator to mix molasses with the sand and salt as it is spread onto to roadway.

“It pre-wets the sand,” Lizotte said. “It helps keep it on the road.” Applying the mixture not only helps melt ice but also serves to help prevent the build up of packed snow during a storm, said Lizotte.

The system, which the Public Works staff built and installed in-house, consists of two plastic tanks fitted alongside the plow truck’s dump container, a pump and hoses, and a system of nozzles that can spray the molasses mixture onto the sand as it passes from the dump body to the spreader.

Lizotte has a 2,500-gallon storage tank outside for the molasses. Thursday it held about 1,500 gallons. If the system works well, Lizotte said he has plans for additional storage as needed.

That sand, which is appreciated by motorists when roads are icy, can be an annoyance when spring arrives, Lizotte recognizes.

“In the winter folks say we don’t put down enough sand, and in the spring people say we put down too much,” he said with a laugh.

All of winter’s snow needs to go someplace too. What is not taken away by the town is left to melt when spring arrives. Warm weather, like the trend the region saw in late February, can create early problems for Lizotte.

“It’s pothole season,” the public works director said.

Meltwater and spring rains, if not drained properly, can seep under the pavement, causing lifting and breaking up of the asphalt. “It’s just like Corn Flakes,” when that happens, Lizotte said.

So, cleaning out storm drains and removing snowbanks is another part if the workload for Lizotte’s crew this time of year.

Behind the Public Works garage is where Lizotte has put much if this winter’s snow, once it is taken away from town streets. This takes up a lot space.

“I think I will have snow until July,” said Lizotte, referring to the mammoth piles of snow that dwarf most vehicles.

When it comes to moving that snow from town streets, Lizotte would remind people that the large snowblower his crews use is not indestructible. Pushing excessive snow from one’s driveway into the street is an inconvenience and added work for town crews, but when residents do not remove debris from that snow, it can be dangerous and costly.

“Our blower doesn’t mind snow,” Lizotte said. “But, not crowbars and garbage can lids.” Repairs have already been made on the blower this year, he said. A new gearbox for the blower is $15,000, according to the director.

With spring on the horizon, Lizotte looked out Thursday on to the mound of sand and gravel adjacent to the public works garage. What had been 5,000 yards at the start of the season is now down to what he estimates to be 1,200 yards. A second pile at another location has shrunk from 1,200 yards to about 300 over the winter.

The predicted sub-freezing temperatures this weekend mean those piles are sure to go down even more, as Lizotte’s crew heads to the streets again to help keep drivers safe.

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