It's still too cold to clean up icy streets

Iced roads
Sunlight shines off the ice that covers the intersection of Mackubin St. and Dayton Ave. in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

A couple of inches of powdery snow is in the forecast for the Twin Cities Tuesday night, but there's no end in sight to the arctic weather that's hampering road cleanup efforts.

Many city streets are still covered with a thick layer of ice well over a week after the big Christmas-week snowstorm, leading to more fender benders and cars lining up at the repair shops for suspension work after hitting curbs, potholes and ice chunks.

But there's no need to blame budget cuts, neglectful plow drivers or the environmentalists that have pushed many cities to use less salt on the roads. It's just too cold to remove the ice.

"Until the temperatures come up, there isn't really much anybody can do," said Mike Kennedy, director of winter operations for the Minneapolis Public Works Department.

Temperatures of at least 15 degrees are needed for rock salt to start working. Although some more expensive chemicals work at lower temperatures, none work when it's below zero, Kennedy said.

Kennedy says the oddity of the Christmas snow storm turning into a rainstorm might not have been a big deal, except for the fact that stretch of zero to sub-zero weather followed a few days later - which turned everything to ice.

Sub-zero weather
It was as cold as it looked out there.
Laura Gill

That wreaked havoc on the city's snow removal. It's important to note, Kennedy said, that the goal is never to clear snow down to the pavement on side roads. That's because side roads aren't plowed until the second day of a snow emergency, and plenty of cars have used those roads by then. The goal is to remove enough to where the remaining snow is packed tightly.

Clearing city streets can be as much art as science. Kennedy said his crews are at the whims of forecasters and the vagaries of weather.

"Given the information that we had at the time and when we had to make the decisions, they were the correct decisions," Kennedy said. "It's very easy to armchair quarterback it afterwards."

Overnight low temperatures in the Twin Cities have been in the single digits or below zero since Dec. 27. And even if the mercury hit the 20s during the day, it hasn't been enough time for the ice -- which is several inches thick in some places -- to melt away.

"The stuff is like concrete. It doesn't want to go away," said Kevin Nelson, the street and bridge maintenance engineer for the St. Paul Public Works Department.

City crews have tried to remove ice from some streets with graders, because "snow plows can't really cut ice," Nelson said.

But even a grader can't do much to a chunk of ice when it's below zero, so crews are doing other tasks instead. That includes continuing to remove the piles of snow in downtown St. Paul.

Moving mountains of snow and ice
Moving mountains of snow and ice leftover from the Christmas weekend snowstorm
Laura Gill

With 850 miles of street in St. Paul, crews will do what they can when the temperatures return to the teens and 20s, Nelson said. But it's a big task, he said.

"It's going to be a tough haul until it gets above freezing," Nelson said.

Meantime, the slippery intersections have caused dozens of accidents in the Twin Cities, and the bumpy ride and cold weather hasn't been kind to people's cars.

Tom Gleason, a mechanic for Pro-Tech repair shop in Corcoran near Maple Grove, has seen more cars with suspension issues lately. Going over the rough ice can put extra strain on a vehicle's shocks, which have a rubber seal that can become brittle in the cold, he said.

"Then you give it a really harsh shock like a pothole or these big ice chunks and that can cause it to break or lose its seal," said Gleason, a board member with the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Minnesota.

The rough streets and icy intersections can also mess up a vehicle's alignment or cause loose components like tie rod ends and ball joints to break, he said.

"Anything that was weak tends to fail in those conditions," Gleason said.

Back in Minneapolis, officials are keeping an eye on forecasts to see what relief might come. With the roads already narrow, it's getting harder for fire trucks to get some places. If more snow falls before that ice can be cleared, officials say they might impose a city-wide rule that only allows parking on one side of the street. It's a move that hasn't been made since 2001.

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