Pre-treating sometimes not enough in the face of freezing rain

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TIFFIN, Iowa (KCRG) - As cars raced down Interstate 80 through Johnson County on Wednesday afternoon, the remnants of hours’ worth of brining, salting and sanding the road were just about invisible.

Trucks drive along Interstate 80 west of Iowa City on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. The Iowa Department of Transportation warned drivers to steer clear of a 75-mile stretch of I-80 because of icy roads earlier in the morning. (Mary Green/KCRG)

Anticipating winter weather that morning, the Iowa Department of Transportation pretreated the interstate and all state routes on Tuesday to prevent ice from sticking to the road surface.

“However, when it comes down that heavily, really, that treatment doesn’t last, and it just went ahead and stuck to the roadways,” Cathy Cutler, Iowa DOT transportation planner, said.

On Wednesday morning, DOT plows dropped sand and salt and then scrape the ice from the road as part of its de-icing process.

The DOT said that entire route takes about an hour and a half, and the ice kept accumulating. So, the department warned drivers to stay off a 75-mile stretch of I-80 through Iowa, Johnson and Cedar counties as well.

“Even though we were out continually, it just really was an unsafe situation for motorists,” Cutler said.

“This morning was so icy, everything was a problem,” Trooper Bob Conrad, of the Iowa State Patrol, said. “But I will say, all the exit ramps were a problem because people were getting off at the exit ramps, and they were sliding off to the side.”

Conrad said troopers responded to about a dozen crashes Wednesday morning, none with serious injuries.

“We actually had one trooper, last I heard, I think he got hit two, if not three times, same car,” Conrad said.

The main issues Wednesday morning involved semi-trucks, according to Conrad.

“We had several semis that couldn’t get up hills. We had semis jackknifed. We had semis that flipped over,” Conrad said.

Conrad added it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, with many drivers seeming to heed the DOT’s warning to stay off that part of the interstate.

“It was a little more of a ghost town this morning, which is what we want to see,” Conrad said.

The DOT said it did all it could to prepare by pretreating roads with brine ahead of time, but the weather might’ve weakened some of the prep work.

“There was some icy rain, so it probably diluted it a little bit,” Cutler said.

Cutler added that DOT plows will be pre-treating roads as needed in anticipation of more snow on Friday.