COLUMBIA — Sitting behind the wheel of his snowplow Monday evening, city worker Derrick Ray looked down onto the snow-covered roofs of pickups the way pickup drivers look down onto the roofs of compacts.
Ray is one of 30 city workers who take turns running 12-hour shifts plowing roughly 500 miles of Columbia streets to ensure traffic keeps moving despite snowfall.
They do this at the controls of the vehicles in Columbia's snow-removal fleet, which consists of 20 large trucks with plows and spreaders, six pickup trucks with plows and spreaders, four graders, five backhoes and two front-end loaders.
Ray did two winters in a pickup plow, working mostly in residential areas before getting behind the wheel of a snowplow. All of the city's drivers are required to have a commercial driver's license, and the rest is on-the-job training.
Plowing the streets, Ray must watch for traffic signals, curbs and vehicles darting around him, all while managing the hydraulics for the plow, salt spreader and calcium chloride spray. There are pedestrians walking on the sidewalk who don’t want to be pummeled by grimy wet snowballs or enveloped by a fast-moving cloud of dusty snow. Drivers must slow for railroad crossings, bridges, intersections, the occasional speed bump and animals such as dogs, cats and deer.
Once, Ray accidentally hit a dog with his plow. It jumped out in front of his plow and, unable to stop in time, he hit it. Luckily, the pooch jumped up and ran away unscathed.
Although it sounds cliché, Ray's advice to drivers around the plow is to "keep your distance ... and let us around because it’ll probably do you more good anyway."
The automatic engine whines and the salt spreader roars as the truck claws its way up steep, snowy hills. Ray has the gas pedal pushed to the floor. The plow maxes out at 10 mph on the hill.
As it reaches the top, the interior of the plow seems silent as Ray slows to a stop. Suddenly, all that can be heard is the squeaking rubber of the windshield wipers and the tick-tick-tick of the diesel engine.
Ray said it's surprising how much faster it is to plow at night when there's no traffic. He said you can spend 15-20 minutes plowing a route at night that would take an hour during the day. In fact, Monday morning, he said it took 15 minutes to move 100 feet on Broadway because traffic was congested.