Local transportation departments face obstacles preparing for winter

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- With colder months approaching, local cities and towns are kicking in their winter weather protocol.

In Winston-Salem, they're addressing multiple issues this year. The first is a new crew of plow truck operators.

"We have a lot of turnover with our equipment operator positions, partly promotion, partly just taking other opportunities," said Ryan Newcomb, assistant director of the Winston-Salem Department of Transportation.

To fill the vacant spots they've had to take workers about 15 from other positions and train them to drive the plows.

"Get them out in a truck, show them the difference between an empty vehicle and then a vehicle that's got a plow and a spreader," said Newcomb.

On Friday, the new drivers had to complete a training course; first in the classroom, then in a makeshift course on the DOT yard.

"You put someone in a truck that's got eight tons of salt on the back of it and a plow on the front of it, they're trying to do their job while folks are out and about, it creates a dangerous situation," said Newcomb.

For first-year drivers like Jimmy Tullock Jr. it was true learning experience. Tullock has spent the last 20 years on the tech side of the DOT as a senior traffic technician.

"I would have never thought that I'd be driving a dump truck but we gotta do what we gotta do," said Tullock.

Tullock and the other new drivers first drove a truck without the plow, then re-did the course in a truck with a plow; learning the controls, watching their turn radius, operating the equipment.

"Dropping the plow. That's what I wanted to do is just drop the plow and see how it felt on the concrete and asphalt," said Tullock. "This is what I needed; to get in the truck, get a feel of it, and find out it's not as difficult as I thought it was gonna be."

Yet, the challenges for the DOT don't stop there. During the major storms earlier in the year, many North Carolina cities had a problem re-stocking road salt. They do not want that to happen again but whether it happens may not be in their hands.

"The issue we're facing this year is two-fold. One, the cost has gone up significantly. It's gone up about 80 percent from last year's cost," said Newcomb.

Last year, the Winston-Salem DOT was paying $78 a ton for the salt. This year, they are paying $118 per ton. Newcomb says the increase in price is due to a nationwide shortage, caused by major cities like Charlotte and Atlanta, who had major problems last year, buying more salt than they normally would.

"So, it gonna be difficult to get orders placed and delivered, particularly if we get in situations where storms come back-to-back," he said. "We're not in a position where we can throw our hands up to our council, to our citizens, and say 'sorry, we don't have any salt.' So, we're doing everything we can on the front end to make sure we don't end up in that situation."

The City of High Point said they have the maximum amount of salt they can currently hold, which is about 800 tons. They too have a contract in place with a supplier.