Winter warriors keep I-80 open | SierraSun.com

Winter warriors keep I-80 open

Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun

Ryan Salm/Sierra SunCaltrans employees check snow chains on trucks and cars at tje checkpoint near Kingvale on Thursday, Jan. 4.

Simultaneously answering his cell phone, listening to the scanner and maneuvering his Suburban across the slick highway pass, Jeff Waters explains the ins-and-outs of the ever-busy life of an Interstate 80 Caltrans superintendent.

The storm predicted for the morning of Jan. 4 was a big one ” an estimated 20 inches of snow in the High Sierra, fierce winds and frigid temperatures. And even though the forecast was slightly off, Caltrans prepared for the weather with additional staff, plows and chain checks all along Donner Pass.

“You can’t let your guard down,” Waters said.

Waters oversees what amounts to the epicenter of winter driving in California. His duties include ensuring that the state’s only trans-Sierra interstate, I-80, and Highways 89, 276 and 28, continue to run smoothly no matter how bitter the storm.

The Caltrans employees that cover this region work based out of the dispatch center in Kingvale, a hotspot of activity, where staffers field calls and evaluate weather conditions to make winter driving in the mountains as safe as possible.

Earlier in the morning an overturned semi-truck near Gold Run kept Caltrans workers busy, but snow levels were not as low nor was the storm as heavy as predicted so the morning was considerably quiet, Waters said. Still, chain checks were in place in both Truckee and Kingvale.

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“We do everything we can to keep this road open for travel,” Waters said.

I-80 rarely closes due to weather conditions, because chain controls, snowplows, snowblowing and semi-pushers help keep the roads clear. Caltrans will hold traffic at either end of the pass, mostly when spinouts, accidents or semi-trucks obstruct the flow. One of the biggest challenges of the job, Waters said, is determining when and where to hold the traffic.

“I have to think for people … make a decision for the masses,” Waters said.

Even in a white-out, Caltrans sends plows to maintain the roads. Much like the video game Pong, ground magnets guide the heavy machinery along the highway and a radar alerts the driver of any approaching obstacles like fallen rocks or abandoned cars.

“They can literally plow the road with zero visibility,” said Juanita Holley, communication center manager.

Caltrans’ primary purpose is to maintain the roadways for safe driving. And though they will provide public assistance to vehicles that have spun out, they refer accidents to California Highway Patrol or Placer and Nevada County Sheriff’s.

Nearly 200 full-time employees help run the Kingvale operation, with an influx of seasonal workers to staff a snowstorm. Caltrans follows weather patterns very closely, as the forecasted snow level determines how many employees to have on hand and how much equipment to send out. For example in the predicted storm for Jan. 4, Waters said he would need 164 staff.

During a storm the roads are action-packed with chain installers, snowplows and car wrecks. But the dispatch center is just as bustling. Decorated in four big-screen televisions and six computer screens, the two ladies on duty field weather forecasts, radio transceivers, phone calls and maintenance equipment. One television streams weather via direct-feed satellite, another shows the freeze line, and another maps out chain controls. The fourth, the dispatchers said, has cable for local news channels.

From the split-screen computers the dispatchers dictate the changeable message signs and broadcast conditions to radio stations.

In other buildings at the Kingvale hub, employees rest between their 12-hour shifts, eat at the on-site cafeteria, or prepare and repair the machinery.

“When we have storms, they become their own little cities,” said Caltrans spokesperson Shelly Chernicki of Caltrans hubs.

With a year-round average of 60,000 cars crossing Donner Pass each day, there are proportionately few wrecks, Waters said.

But Waters said there shouldn’t be any accidents. If drivers navigate the roads more carefully, particularly in hairy weather, most auto crashes can be avoided, he said.

Vehicles should also be equipped with fuel, blankets, food and water, and tire chains. And he said to allow extra time for winter travel.

“Put your patience in your back pocket,” Waters said.

Today’s forecast calls for extreme sub-freezing temperatures, which won’t influence how many Caltrans employees are on call.

“The cold weather doesn’t effect what we do,” Waters said. “We’ll still be staffed twenty-four-seven.”

Waters said the forecasted storm may bring about four inches of snow at the summit and an inch or so near the lake. Because precipitation is predicted, Caltrans will have enough staff at the Kingvale hub to supply a chain control if need be.

“I’ll let you know on Saturday what happens today,” Waters said.