RICHMOND — Scott Barber, behind the wheel of a lumbering Sterling Acterra truck, lowers his plow and makes another pass up the steep and narrow Punch Bowl Hill. It’s midmorning, and he’s been on the road, trying to stay ahead of the nasty storm, since 4 a.m.
“It was snowy, and then all of a sudden, boom! For three hours, it came down heavy,” he says.
Barber, who has been Richmond’s director of public works for 14 years, will remain on the road as long as the snow, or freezing rain, or rain, keeps falling. “We’ve got eight of our regular guys, and we’ve got seven private vendors.”
Everyone works nonstop until the storm ends. The state Department of Transport clears Routes 138, 2 and 112, but the rest of Richmond’s 110 miles of road are plowed by the town. The routes vary in length, up to 26 miles, but take an average of four hours to clear. Each driver has his regular route.
“We find that’s the best,” Barber said. “Every route has unique things about it — where the curves are, where the mailboxes are, where there’s a curb sticking out into the road.” Barber takes extra care to avoid the mailboxes, which he calls “innocent victims.”
As the snow changes to sleet, he prioritizes.
He focuses on major roads, especially the hills and intersections, and lays down a mixture of salt and sand. Each road receives four initial passes: one in each direction down the middle, and two more to push the remaining snow to the side. Barber will keep returning to remove additional snow and ice as it accumulates. The 10-foot carbon steel plow is equipped with a carbide-tipped blade that costs about $200 and will last only a storm or two before it has to be replaced. Fully loaded with sand, the truck weighs about 27,000 pounds.
We reach a slushy intersection and Barber lowers the plow.
“That’s why I hate wide intersections,” he says as he repeatedly backs up and rolls forward. “See how long it takes to clear the intersection?”
With the schools closed, there’s less traffic for Barber and his men to contend with, but then Barber’s cellphone rings with the first of several unpleasant surprises. Another driver, Jim Hill, is reporting a leak in the hydraulic tank of his truck, so he’s bringing it back to the DPW yard.
Then Barber discovers that his sander isn’t working, and makes plans to return to the yard to unblock it. This will require him to completely unload and then reload the truck. But before he heads back to the yard, Barber hails another driver, Codi Caswell, on the 2-way radio and arranges to meet him at the Carolina Fire Station. Barber is afraid the hydraulic pump on his truck might be on its way out, affecting the operation of both the plow and sander, but he’s going to try changing a fan belt first to see if that does the trick.
“For some reason this truck’s been eating belts lately,” he says.
Caswell is waiting when Barber pulls up. As the sleet intensifies, he and Caswell deftly cut off the old belt and install a new one. Barber calls the operation, which took about 10 minutes, a “roadside.”
“See you later, little buddy,” Barber says as he pulls away. “He’s one of my young guns,” he says of the 20-something Caswell. “Good kid.”
But the sander still isn’t working, and now, freezing rain is beginning to accumulate on the roads.
“Look at this mess. This is going to start getting ugly,” Barber says.
It’s not long before the cellphone rings again, and there’s another problem. One of the other trucks has a flat tire. Now the fleet is down by two trucks and Barber’s could be next to go. Barber concentrates on keeping up with the precipitation.
“This is going to put us behind the 8-ball. The truck with the flat tire — all that time — it’s hard to make that up. Today’s starting to wear on me,” he says.
Barber pulls into the DPW yard to dump and reload his sand. Driver Gary Robar looks under the truck, checking for fluid leaks, while Barber revs the engine. Robar can’t find any leaks, but a problem with the hydraulic pump is still preventing Barber from dumping his sand.
“I think the hydraulic pump may be on its way out,” he says as we pull out onto the road. “I’ll just keep going till it quits. These things get worked hard, and after a while, things wear out. Unfortunately, this is when they break. We just don’t have a lot of depth on spare trucks.”
Barber is now two plow trucks down and not able to salt or sand with his own truck.
But the other drivers seamlessly move in to take over the routes of the two broken down plows.
“These guys are going to have to leapfrog,” he says. “We’ll prioritize the main roads, and a lot of the side streets are going to get skipped. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Barber gets another call, telling him that the portable jack that would normally be used to replace the flat truck tire can’t handle the additional weight of the vehicle, loaded with salt and sand.
“Do you think NAPA would have one?” Barber asks as he continues to make passes with his plow. “This is turning into an episode.”
Then, a passenger car suddenly pulls out of a driveway into Barber’s path.
“Why would you do that?” he asks. “A lot of people see the plow coming and they panic, hit the brake pedal and skid.”
As Barber’s plow passes homes, many of whose owners are out shoveling their driveways, he gets a lot of waves. Some residents even call the DPW after the storm to thank the employees.
“People that work in public works, it’s a lifestyle,” he says. “You miss out on family functions and other planned activities…There’s nothing like crawling under a wet, dripping truck and working on it. These guys do it day in and day out. You’ve got people that are very appreciative of what we do, then you’ve got people who think all we do is drive around and collect money. I’ll defend them against anybody, because these guys don’t give up.”
Barber and his drivers pride themselves on their resourcefulness and ingenuity. They do almost all of the repairs themselves, although the newer trucks with all their electronics are a bit more complicated. As Barber continues to plow his route, still unable to spread any sand, a strange-looking red and yellow truck appears behind him.
It’s Jim Hill, the driver of one of the disabled trucks, behind the wheel of a sander that Barber built himself. The truck’s body is an old firetruck that Barber found in West Greenwich five years ago and bought for $4,000. He removed the body and added a bright yellow sander.
“Everything that we plowed, he’ll end up sanding,” Barber says. “You try to meet the needs at a low cost.”
At least twice, Barber drives his truck past his own house, whose driveway is still unplowed.
Between repairing the trucks, loading up with salt and sand and preparing for another storm, which is expected in a couple of days, he probably wouldn’t be able to clear his own driveway until much later that night. During a storm, there is no quitting time. Asked how much longer he would keep plowing, his answer was simple, “Till it’s over,” he said.