How does Fort Worth treat roads for ice? New plan outlines city’s winter storm response

dfwnewsa | February 5, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

How does Fort Worth treat roads for ice? New plan outlines city’s winter storm response

Snow blankets the intersection of West Vickery and Hemphill in Fort Worth on Jan. 31, 2023. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)
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Katrina Johnson loves living in Sunset Heights, a west Fort Worth neighborhood nestled between South Hulen Street and West Vickery Boulevard. But there’s one aspect of the community she and her neighbors could live without: being trapped between steep hills when an ice storm hits. 

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Johnson learned that lesson the hard way when she moved to the area a decade ago. After attempting to drive up a hill and sliding back down, Johnson parked her car outside a neighbor’s home. A few days later, she returned to find that her car was hit by another driver making the same perilous journey. 

“It’s one of those things that you just adapt to,” Johnson said. “Either you just stay somewhere else and you don’t go home, or you come home and just recognize that if it’s really icy outside, then you won’t go anywhere.” 

With extreme cold snaps and ice storms happening more frequently across Texas, Fort Worth officials want to help residents better understand how the city approaches winter weather. In January, the city’s transportation and public works department released its first snow and ice control plan. 

The operating procedures detailed in the plan were already available to city staff, said Lane Zarate, the department’s assistant director of street and stormwater operations. 

“But this is the first time that we’ve put together a comprehensive document for the public about it,” Zarate said. “We have a lot of questions from residents after some of these events, asking, ‘Why don’t you do this? Why do you do that?’ It became obvious this year, in my new role, that we should create this and put it out there.” 

Snow and sleet hit Fort Worth an average of nine days each year. That’s significantly lower than cities like Denver, which sees about 43 days of snow annually. Snow and ice accumulation in Fort Worth averages less than 1 inch, according to the city’s planning documents. 

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What happens when there’s an ice or snow storm in Tarrant County? 

Officials activate the Joint Emergency Operations Center, which convenes leaders from the city and Tarrant County, to assess the storm and determine when 24-hour staffing and sanding, among other options, will be necessary. Fort Worth’s street operations superintendent notifies its teams that they will be on a 24-hour emergency schedule rotation.

Following the storm, staff assess the effectiveness of the response and replenish sand and other resources. Equipment is tested each September. Read the full plan here.

When a winter storm does hit, Fort Worth applies a sand-salt mixture on top of the icy pavement to add traction, helping those who must leave their homes navigate the roads more safely, said street operations superintendent Timothy Moreno. 

The city stocks over 6,000 tons of sand and uses about 2,500 tons during an average winter. This year, city crews began using spray trucks to apply brine, a saltwater solution, to roads to prevent ice formation. 

Fort Worth currently has one brine-making machine that can generate 800 gallons per hour, enough to treat 17 miles of road. The city owns a single truck that can apply brine using a 500-gallon tank spraying unit. City staff anticipate adding five more trucks with 750-gallon tank spraying units in the near future. 

Because icy conditions are the norm, the city doesn’t maintain a fleet of snow plows, Moreno said. 

“It’d be hard for us to try to ramp up for the worst-case scenario and have a bunch of stuff that we’re never going to utilize, or that we only utilize once every five or six years,” Moreno said. “That wouldn’t be a good way to spend taxpayer dollars.”

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Bridges, hospitals get priority, while neighborhood roads generally go untreated

With 8,100 lane miles and more than 240 bridges in Fort Worth’s road network, the city must prioritize where it sends sanding and brine resources. With the Texas Department of Transportation responsible for highway treatment, the city’s top priorities are critical bridges and hospital entrances. 

Next up are critical hills, which are identified based on historical incidents of icing and car accidents. Third on the city’s list are major intersections and arterial roads. Neighborhood streets will not be sanded and local roads generally will remain untreated during ice storms unless they provide access to priority locations, according to the plan. 

“As such, residents are strongly urged to prioritize their safety by heeding warnings and, when feasible, opting to stay home during winter events,” the plan reads. “Every conceivable effort will be made to enhance safety measures and mitigate the impact of these unpredictable events on the community.” 

Johnson appreciates the clarity that comes with the city’s written plan. 

“At least we know what’s happening,” she said. “Will it benefit me? Probably not, unless they get to a place where they can at least treat the roads better in my neighborhood or the neighborhoods that are most at risk for people not being able to drive on them, especially when the power goes out.” 

When residents call in with requests to treat roads near their neighborhood, the emergency operations center establishes a priority list of locations for crews to treat if they have resources available, Moreno said. The challenge becomes completing that list, especially when priority locations still need assistance, he added. 

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“It would take us an astronomical amount of time to hit every neighborhood location,” Moreno said. “If resources and time are available, we get out every now and then, whether it’s intersections or areas where there’s a lot of people having trouble getting out of their neighborhood. By the time that comes around, most of the time the situation no longer exists.” 

Two people pick ice off their car on Feb. 2, 2023 in south Fort Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

In the future, Johnson hopes the city can assess which areas of Fort Worth are most at risk of having impassable roads. If the storm lasts longer than a few days, neighborhoods like Sunset Heights should be on the priority list, she said. 

Zarate expects the 2024 plan to be regularly updated as the city’s resources grow and evolve. Fort Worth’s operations crews already go above and beyond to keep residents safe during emergencies, she said, and city officials learn from each storm. 

“We recognize that we need to be prepared for anything,” Zarate said. “We try to over-prepare and have more material on hand than we may need. I don’t think we are stretched thin, but I think we are maximizing what we can do with our current resources.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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