Let It Snow: Lawrence Streets Department crews prepared for winter road management


The day before a forecasted 2- to 4-inch snowfall, Lawrence Public Works Streets Department crews were preparing for the worst.

Stanley Socks, Ronnie Benslay, Howard Lewis and Larry Jones busied themselves getting trucks ready to apply brine to the streets, which helps create a barrier that makes it easier to scoop up snow. Large tanks of brine at the department’s maintenance facility hold about 6,000 gallons, and Lawrence Public Works Director Jim Heneghan said it’s nontoxic — just salt, water and — oddly — beet juice.

“What beet juice does, it makes it stick to the roads,” he explained. “They used to use molasses but that got expensive.”

Brining roads is part of the pre-snow work. After the snowfall begins, there’s more work to be done. To that end, the department has large snowplows for the main roads, trucks with plow attachments for side streets and neighborhoods, loaders to move mounds of snow, about 10,000 tons of road salt to keep the roads free of ice, and seven drivers who hold Commercial Driver’s License certification. An eighth is working on her CDL certification, Heneghan said, and is the first Black woman working at the Streets Department.

How big of a response the department ends up providing naturally depends on how much snow Mother Nature decides to send. While forecasts have gotten better, it’s still pretty unpredictable. So, they’re ready for anything.

“We salt 2 inches and we plow 3,” Heneghan said. “You can control 2 inches of snow with salt for traffic purposes, but once it gets above 2 inches, like 3, 4, you know, 10, you have to remove it before you can salt.”

When there’s a major snow event, he said, they get a little help from City of Lawrence Utilities crews, which adds 14 CDL drivers and a bunch of smaller trucks to the mix. Salting the city takes about four hours, Heneghan said. Plowing — well, how long that takes depends on many factors, including the cooperation of city residents.

Heneghan, who has worked for the city 38 years, said the biggest headache for snowplow drivers is cars parked on the street.

“There’s one neighborhood here that we can’t even get down the road because they park on both sides of the street so we can’t plow it,” he said. “And it’s not fair to the other neighbors that don’t park in the street.”

It also impedes mail delivery, he said, because when a car is parked too close to a mailbox, the plow can’t clear snow to allow a postal worker access.

“We get calls: ‘I can’t get my mail because you didn’t plow here,’” he said. “Yes, we did plow — your neighbor left his car out there and we can’t get underneath your mailboxes.”

Heneghan added that street crews don’t usually return to plow after cars have moved, because by then the snow has frozen into a solid mass that can’t be budged. He stressed the importance of parking in driveways when snow is predicted.

Another way residents can help mitigate snow-related frustration for themselves is to either wait until the plows come through before shoveling their drives or leave a couple feet unshoveled at the end closest to the street.

“The way our snowplows work, everything offloads off the right,” Heneghan said. “So, if it finds an empty void, guess what happens? All that snow we bring from the center of the street empties right in your driveway. If you’ll leave that (buffer), it won’t empty itself there,” making it easier for a resident to clear their drive with a hand shovel.

Benslay, who has worked for the Streets Department 25 years, said traffic is another obstacle to plowing snow. Traffic can work in their favor, too, though, helping to grind the road salt in and melt the snow through friction.

“We like to come in at night. lay our salt down right before rush hour in the morning so traffic can work it in, and then we’re good to go,” he said. “That’s what we like, but it never happens that way.”

Benslay said plowing can be tedious, especially during big snowfalls that require long hours in the truck. He stays alert with lots of caffeine, listening to the radio, rolling the window down for the occasional blast of cold air and stopping briefly to step out of the truck and stretch his legs.

“It gets to the point where, you know, you catch your second wind and you catch your third wind and then it’s just that fourth one, you hit a brick wall – you just can’t do it,” he said.

But when the first shift gets tired, Heneghan said, they’re able to call in the second shift to take over, making sure the city’s streets remain clear for residents to get where they need to go.

The big one

Lawrence Public Works Director Jim Heneghan recalled that the biggest snow event he’s responded to during his 38 years with the city was in the mid- to late-‘90s.

“We had one that came in as a 10-inch snowfall on a Wednesday,” he said. “We clocked in on a Wednesday. We worked all Wednesday, all Thursday. Got another snowfall Thursday evening. And I believe we ended up clocking out late Saturday night.”

The 10 inches on that first night was followed by 4 to 5 the next, he said, and at least a couple more later on.

Heneghan added that, through the years, he’s helped several expectant moms get to the hospital in time.

“I’ve had the great honor of … helping assist with three babies being delivered in the City of Lawrence, because the ambulance — one of the 10-inch falls I was talking about — the ambulance couldn’t get in the neighborhood because we hadn’t got there yet,” he said. “I had to plow them in and plow them out so they get to the hospital. I’ve done that three times. It’s pretty cool.”