TxDOT: Even with road treatment, drivers beware

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on January 28, 2014 at 7:31 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jan 28 at 7:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Whether terrifying or just annoying, Tuesday morning's icy commute was no picnic for anyone.

"It was bad," said Ivan Velasquez, who drove into downtown from North MoPac Expressway. "It was at a standstill."

"It was very slow," said Angelica Torres, who made the slow commute from Wells Branch Parkway.

"I was sliding. You could tell you were sliding," said Rachel Suiter, said her drive from Circle C in the early morning hours grew worse as she approached downtown. "But like I said, over all the bridges, [I went] 15 to 20 miles an hour and it was okay."

More than 145 Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) crew members worked through the night preparing surfaces on 12-hour shifts, giving priority to bridges and overpasses. Many sections had to be treated multiple times as precipitation threatened to dilute some of the liquid agents, and road closures allowed some sections to freeze again without the thawing effects of traffic.

Still, the slipping and sliding that resulted in scores of accidents left some wondering if it was enough.

"When they're going to have something, let's get ready for it," said Jesus Bear, who told KVUE he was shocked by how many collisions were reported during the morning rush hour.

With the help of 20 extra super sacks of Meltdown 20 sent from Fort Worth, the total amount of granular de-icer deployed on Central Texas roadways on Tuesday topped the amount used for Friday's ice event. Kelli Reyna from TxDOT's Austin office explained the chemicals used by highway workers to treat driving surfaces.

"We actually use what's called Meltdown 20. It's a granular de-icer that works better than sand. It actually helps to melt the ice. We used 206 tons of that for this one event," said Reyna. "We also work with a liquid de-icer. It's called magnesium chloride. We used 23,500 gallons of that on the roadways again for this one single event."

All of those treatments can make it more difficult for ice to form or make it easier to drive on ice, but nothing short of changing the laws of physics can stop ice from forming completely when weather is below freezing and precipitation -- in particular, freezing rain or sleet -- is falling. For that reason, Reyna said drivers still have to play their part.

"If you do have to go, we ask that you go slow. We're talking reducing your speed to 20 to 30 miles per hour as appropriate," said Reyna, stressing that ice will form despite repeated surface treatment during severe events such as Tuesday's.

Faced with mother nature, Velasquez said he gets it.

"I don't know how much you can do," said Velasquez. "But it would have been nice to have a quicker commute."

While dollar figures for dealing with ice events on Friday and Tuesday weren't immediately available, Reyna said TxDOT budgets for occasional ice events throughout the year. Only when ice events occur more frequently or the events are significantly more severe than normal do they have a significant fiscal impact on TxDOT.

Meanwhile, TxDOT will begin to analyze its remaining inventory of ice mitigation agents and determine if more is needed to prepare for another anticipated event.

"Right now, we're hearing that this could happen again in a week," said Reyna. "That is why we are rapidly trying to reassess where we are as far as materials, manpower, everything like that goes. We have to make sure we are prepared."

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