COLUMBIA — When he worked for the Missouri Department of Transportation, Bob Lannert saw a problem that needed a solution.
When it snowed in St. Louis, state crews would “gang plow” five lanes at a time by lining up plows to clear the snow at once, but then other roads would have to go unplowed, he said.
“Farmers don’t buy eight tractors and line them up across the field,” Lannert said, explaining how equipment manufacturers have gone from producing the two- and four-row planters to 54-row planters.
In 2000, he said he defined his goal: Build a contraption to attach to a snow plow truck that will enable it to clear 25 feet of road – two lanes instead of one – at speeds up to 50 mph.
He said he started by experimenting, along with his grandchildren, on John Deere lawn mowers at his farm near Sturgeon in northern Boone County.
He said by pulling one mower with the other, they simulated a truck pulling a trailer, and he began to understand the dynamics of his idea. The experiment then graduated to a larger scale with two open-cab tractors in a field, which eventually led him to develop the design for his prototype TowPlow, Lannert said.
He said the TowPlow is a trailer that is pulled behind a snow plow truck. With the push of a lever from inside the cab, it deploys 12 feet to the right across the entire lane beside the truck. Another push of the lever lowers the plow blade, which makes a two-lane snow pushing machine, Lannert said.
Then came the most difficult part: convincing other engineers of its effectiveness and selling it, he said. Manufacturer Viking-Cives Midwest, based in Morley, south of St. Louis, where Lannert was born, spent about $300,000 on testing and decided to help him patent the design, he said.
The first TowPlow was manufactured in 2005, and Lannert began touring the country from California to West Virginia demonstrating it for transportation departments, Lannert said.
“Ninety percent of engineers I talked to said it wouldn’t work because it was too big,” Lannert said. Other naysayers said, “it can’t be stable,” or “it can’t plow in deep snow.”
Since the TowPlow was tested in 2005 in Kansas City, he said more than a dozen states, including Missouri, are using more than 130 TowPlows. Missouri deploys about 60 of them, including four in the Columbia area.
He’s even garnered international attention and in February will travel to Sweden to speak about his invention at a transportation conference, Lannert said.
Larry Taylor, who operates a TowPlow in Boone County for MoDOT, says the biggest difference in driving it is having to plan where to turn around.
The state’s TowPlows join a fleet of about 1,600 traditional snow plows statewide and hit Columbia area roads about four years ago, Dwayne VanDelicht, MoDOT superintendent in the Boone County area, said.
MoDOT maintenance superintendent Mike Belt said the real benefit is that less salt is necessary when most of the snow is off the road. A TowPlow allows one driver to plow more snow at once, which decreases the likelihood of traffic splashing snow back into the lane, Belt said.
“And for every ton of salt we don’t use in the winter, that’s a ton of asphalt we can use in the summer,” he said, noting the price similarity.
MoDOT spokesman Tim Chojnacki says it’s difficult to estimate the exact cost savings offered by the TowPlows, which cost between $70,000 and $85,000.
In his 30-plus years at MoDOT, Lannert said he was an engineer and eventually became assistant director of general services. Although it was not his job to drive a snow plow truck, he said he occasionally did.
Lannert said he retired in 2007 so he could spend more time promoting the TowPlow in other states. These days, he said he spends the majority of his time trying to train every operator — something that often takes him on the road.
He said, last month, Viking-Cives began manufacturing TowPlows in its Morley facility, where it will build 20 to 30 more TowPlows this year.