Philadelphia is retooling its arsenal to fight winter weather by rolling out new equipment, deploying spotters and piloting tracking technology in the wake of last year's record-breaking season.
The first of the changes will be an expansion of the Philadelphia Streets Department's brining operation. A salt and water mixture, brine is sprayed onto streets before snow or ice falls to prevent the precipitation from bonding to the asphalt.
"It buys us some time to get out there and salt and it does help with the melting process,” said Stephen Lorenz, the city’s chief highway engineer.
The city will double its ability to store brine at manufacturing yards in Northeast and Northwest Philadelphia — going from a capacity of 20,000 gallons to about 40,000 gallons.
“We can make the brine, store more brine so that way we don’t have the trucks sitting around waiting for the brine to brew,” Lorenz said.
Getting salt on the streets as quickly as possible is obviously important, but doesn’t always happen as fast as it could. Last winter, trucks servicing South Philadelphia had to make treks out to a salt yard in Southwest Philadelphia or another section of the city to load up.
The travel wasted time and gas. “Plus, there are a lot of smaller trucks being used to get down the narrower streets, so they can’t hold as much salt,” Lorenz said.
The fix? Building a temporary salt yard under Interstate 95 near Oregon Avenue.
Officials are working out details on how to store the salt and keep it secure. Lorenz said they need to make sure no one walks away with buckets of salt they don’t own.
“We’re going to try and do it this year and see if it works and if it does we’re going to make some sort of permanent improvement,” he said.
The Streets Department services 2,500 miles of road with a fleet of 85 trucks and staff of 150 working six days a week. And Lorenz said that’s still not enough.
Officials employed help from some 70 outside contractors last winter to salt and plow the roads and supplement the fleet. Lorenz said this winter the city will rely more heavily on these contractors to help in the fight.
Knowing where the equipment is working and where it's really needed can be a challenge, so now the department is piloting a GPS tracking system and launching a spotter network to keep tabs on both.
“We get the call saying Henry Avenue hasn’t been touched yet. We can bring it up on the screen and see ‘When’s the last time a truck went up Henry Avenue? It came up four hours ago. OK wait a minute, why is it icing up again?’ We need to either deploy another truck out there or we’ll send one of these regional spotters out there,” Lorenz explained.
Spotters will be dispatched based on calls the Streets Department receives from police, firefighters and citizens through the city’s 311 call center. They will use a tablet application, currently under development, to record road conditions and take photos, Lorenz said.
Each entry gets timestamped and saved into a database that can be called up for review.
“It’s good that people are telling us how it is, but now that you have your own visual to see how things are, you know that you can call up the supervisors of a certain area and say ‘Look Broad Street looks pretty good, let’s trade efforts on other roadways,’” he said.
The spotter’s records will also help with accountability for both staff and residents.
Lorenz said the department has been unfairly dinged by homeowners who say their streets haven’t been plowed. But, in reality he says, it’s the residents who threw snow from cars and the sidewalks back into the roadway. That’s illegal in Philadelphia.
“If folks say my street wasn’t plowed or wasn’t salted. Well, I’ve got a timestamp that says, yes I did send a salt truck down the street,” he said.
The GPS tracking will be used on eight trucks including several contractor vehicles, Lorenz said. He did not have a number for how many spotters will be working.
Looking past this winter, the Streets Department is investing in equipment to spread wet salt — basically rock salt that has been sprayed with water before it hits the street.
Crews will install water tanks with spray nozzles on five trucks to begin making the switch. Each tank costs $10,000, but Lorenz said reduces the amount of salt needed. That’s because spraying the mineral limits how much it bounces once it hits the pavement so that the actual roadways and not the curbs and gutters get covered.
“We’ve found, what we’ve already known for years, that we have the driest gutters in the country in doing so,” he said.