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Highway director defends winter storm response, says more resources needed

By Gavin Lesnick

This article was originally published March 11, 2014 at 11:26 a.m. Updated March 11, 2014 at 11:48 a.m.

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Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett addresses lawmakers Tuesday, March 11, 2014, during a meeting on the state's response to winter weather on Interstates 40 and 55.

Highway director defends winter storm response

Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Director Scott Bennett spoke Tuesday to a joint committee of state legislators, defending the state's response to a winter storm this month and calling for additional funding and resources to make improvements in the future. (By Gavin Lesnick)
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I-40 Traffic Jam

Traffic is stalled along Interstate 40 east and west bound from Forrest City through West Memphis on...

The director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department says more resources are needed as the agency looks to improve after a winter storm this month turned Interstates 40 and 55 into parking lots, stranding thousands of drivers.

Scott Bennett is speaking Tuesday to a joint meeting of House and Senate transportation committees about the March 2 storm, which dropped a mix of rain, freezing rain, snow and sleet on most of the state.

"I don't want anybody pointing fingers at the 1,400 workers we had out working 24 hours a day on these events," he said, calling some of the circumstances "extenuating" surrounding the latest storm. "We really are mindful of expectations. We know the expectations are high and we want to do everything we can to meet those expectations. In the end, a lot of it does have to do with the ability to buy new equipment and hire new people."

Bennett said his agency has already spent more than $18 million this year on snow and ice removal, far eclipsing the nearly $5 million spent all of last winter, and needs more resources to implement improvements it is recommending after meeting with Missouri highway officials.

He estimated those improvements in full would cost in the range of $50 million to $60 million, though he conceded $22 million "make a huge difference."

"It's not likely we're going to give you $50 million," Sen. Linda Chesterfield told Bennett after asking for an estimate on the cost.

The highway department came under fire from a number of sources, including Gov. Mike Beebe, who questioned why Missouri and Tennessee seemed to have easier times clearing their roadways — including those near the Arkansas border.

Bennett said parts of Arkansas received more wintry weather than parts of those states and noted that each receives more funding and has more equipment for clearing highways.

Missouri has 570 heavy-duty "belly" plows, which have plows underneath the body of a dump truck and are used to clear snow and break up ice. Arkansas, meanwhile, has only six belly plows and about 700 vehicles total, including some that can't have a plow attached, Bennett said.

Missouri also hires seasonal employees at winter, contracts with a private weather service company and buys a greater amount of salt, which they pretreat with beet juice.

Bennett said the highway department is looking at making changes based on Missouri's approach, but the plan is still under development and the "cost of full implementation" isn't clear. Estimates show the changes would require 250 new plows, about 200 new spreaders, an unknown number of new trucks to which to attach them and 350 more workers.

"These are some of the issues we're working through right now to see if we can get a handle on the cost before we finalize that plan," he said.

Bennett said his agency needs to improve its communication, get better at moving equipment around the state and become more aggressive in closing interstates as it becomes necessary.

"But we have to be mindful of where we're going to put everybody," he said of the highway shutdowns.

He said the department in the near-term wants to buy a dozen of the belly plows, add new salt storage facilities, pursue equipment upgrades and create a special snow and ice budget. Currently, the funds come out of the agency's maintenance budget.

Bennett noted that the early March storm presented a number of unique challenges. Among them, the forecast shifted significantly in the days before and the statewide impacts made it difficult to move crews from one area to another since they were needed everywhere.

Crews did pretreat roads, Bennett told lawmakers, but the system started as rain, which is problematic.

"When the rain comes in first, it washes away a lot of that pretreatment," he said. "And those things happen pretty quickly."

Unusually heavy amounts of sleet that outpaced even the forecast also made the situation difficult, Bennett said, as did the fact that three construction projects were ongoing in the affected areas of I-55 and I-40.

The response was hampered further as trucks wrecked, blocking the highway, or, in one case, when one broke down unrelated to the weather in a single-lane construction zone.

Sen. Bill Sample, chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs, opened the proceeding calling the event "a perfect storm of record sleet and ice."

"We're here not to lay blame but to try to get facts and see if there's some solutions to this problem," he said.

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jnlgray says... March 11, 2014 at 1:15 p.m.

I travel to Memphis at least once per month and have endured the horrors of I-40 for what is now years. The State Police abdicated their traffic control powers to the semi-drivers, disappearing and allowing the truck drivers to dictate and regulate traffic flow. The Highway Department employees assist no one and in one instance where the traffic was blocked in fair weather, but due to construction, they all left at the end of the day leaving the traffic blocked for two hours. They waved from their trucks to the trapped drivers, as they clocked out and went home. The Highway Department and the Highway Commission currently answer to no one, including the taxpayers...that needs to change!!! The Legislature needs to spend their time creating more taxpayer responsive state agencies, like the Highway Department and the Parks and Wildlife Department. Too many political appointees and too little responsibility to the public paying the bill. The recent lack of winter storm response is just another example of over-paid, political animals who do not have to answer to the taxpayers demonstrating their incompetence and arrogance in the face of criticism.

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SRBROTHERINLAW says... March 11, 2014 at 1:35 p.m.

I FOR ONE WOULD HAVE A VERY HARD TIME APPROVING ANOTHER MILLGE INCREASE FOR THE HIGHWAY DEPT THEY JUST GOT ONE VOTED IN THIS PAST YEAR. WHAT THE HECK ARE THEY DOING WITH THE MONEY? BUYING MORE JET FUEL FOR THEIR PLANE?

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jkc78 says... March 11, 2014 at 3:12 p.m.

jnlgray are you from Arkansas? We don't have a Parks and Wildlife department we have a Game and Fish Commission. And I'm not sure they are taxpayer responsive.

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Anon74 says... March 11, 2014 at 4:50 p.m.

@SrBrotherInLaw - The money from the tax increase is going to finish the 4 lanes from border to border. Drive south down 167 and you can see what those tax dollars are going for. They are making pretty good progress and for those of us that drive that way the majority of the time, it's a welcome change.
@Jnlgray - Are you sure that it was AHTD employees? A lot of construction projects are farmed out to contractors. And I'm not sure that it's their job to "assist" you (I'm assuming that you mean in the event of a breakdown). If they are wasting their time assisting you, then they are wasting MY tax dollars by not doing maintenance on the roads.

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nwar says... March 11, 2014 at 4:50 p.m.

Look guys -- they could have done better. But you get what you pay for. AHTD doesn't have nearly the budget for snow and ice removal of other nearby states. So if you want clear pavement during ice events, you're going to have to pony up. Oh and jnlgray -- the employees you saw probably were private contractor workers -- they are the ones that do highway construction jobs.

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LeGrandOurs says... March 11, 2014 at 5:01 p.m.

I'm typing as an I-40 driver who battled the route from LR to Memphis last Tuesday. All I can say is "nice try" by both the Guv-nah and Mr. Bennett. Two full days after the end of the sleet, and it was still a parking lot on our two major interstate routes in Eastern Arkansas. Same thing happened in this same stretch of I-40 in February 2012. The sleet/snow hit the 540 and River Valley 40 corridors without this much fanfare in cleanup. The real solution would be to shut down the construction zones and re-route to highway 70 to allow ice removal during/after the storm...and to limit or re-route all the semi rigs approaching the I-55/I-40 exchange in West Memphis (as a Fire Marshall would do if too many people overcrowded a venue). Speaking of that area, who is the genius who zoned the base of those 2 interstates--with tight access ramps--for the placement of the monster truck stops? That was truthfully like drawing moths to the flame. How many more ice storms must we I-40 drivers endure before the AHTD and the state do some planning and make some smarter decisions based on learnings from their numerous, recent mistakes? Thank you, "Guv-nah".

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oldyankee says... March 11, 2014 at 6:56 p.m.

In case you didn't remember,there was an ice storm feb 4th. I was scheduled for a surgery in maumel and was coming from hot springs village. I decided to take my Dodge 4x4 to make sure I made it and left at 5:30. It was already raining and freezing on the roads leading to I 30.traffic was light but there were already cars in the ditches. We made it onto I 30 at exit 111 and headed north. The ice wasn't too bad on the highway yet but at the overpasses police had closed one lane to slow traffic over the ice covered bridges. when we made it to the 430 bridge over the Arkansas river we had yet to see one highway department truck doing any pretreating or sanding of the bridges including the Arkansas river bridge. Lucky we were going north as the southbound lane was in bad condition. This is not the way to take care of highways when the highway department has so much forewarning from the weather departments of every t.v. meteorologist in the area.

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GrimReaper says... March 11, 2014 at 7:26 p.m.

Yeah......and they need enough resources to put heat cables in all of our highways. That'll solve the problem......

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