Highways in the Billings area should be cleared in record time this winter thanks to the newest snow-removal weapon in the Montana Department of Transportation’s arsenal.
The newest 470-horsepower International 7600 plow trucks in the Department of Transportation’s fleet are now coming standard with a $127,000 trailer made by Viking-Cives called a Tow Plow. The trailer’s hydraulics are capable of pivoting the trailer sideways, pushing the snow off two lanes of asphalt at the same time.
“It will be a really useful tool in our efforts to keep the highway clear,” said Matt Steveson, the first MDT employee in Billings to learn how to operate the behemoth. “What used to take us four trips will now take us two.”
Steveson is one of eight people in the state that has been trained to drive the Tow Plow.
In between storms, the 100,700-pound monster will be stored at the MDT shop just north of the airport on Highway 3. It will be deployed to clear the stretches maintained by the shop — Highway 3 to Broadview, 27th Street from the airport to the Interstate 90 on-ramp, Main Street, 14.5 miles of Interstate 94 and Highway 87 to the Yellowstone County line.
A hopper on the Tow Plow trailer can hold 16 cubic yards of sand or salt and has a 1,800-gallon tank for deicer.
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“There’s a lot going on,” Steveson said. “You really have to pay attention.”
Steveson, 31, has been with the Department of Transportation for the last six years and has been driving heavy machinery ever since he got his driver’s license.
On a test drive down Highway 3, he made handling the 70-foot-long plow and trailer look easy, even though his attention was split between the feeds of two cameras and a joystick controlling three different plow blades.
“They’re pretty easy to drive, all you need is a little seat time,” he said, executing a perfect three-point-turn.
Helping Steveson navigate the roads, the vehicle comes standard with an easy-to-see laser beam pinpointing exactly where on the side of the road the edge of the Tow Plow blade is located. It also has small outlets hooked into the truck’s compressor which are capable of blowing the cameras and laser free of ice and slush while the vehicle is in operation.
A cutting-edge array of bright lights all over the vehicle makes the truck nearly impossible to miss.
All told, the vehicle cost MDT about $275,000 but it cuts personnel costs and plow time in half, said Randy Roth, maintenance chief in the MDT Billings Division. “We’re supposed to be getting another one of these trucks next year.”
MDT has gone from one truck last winter to six trucks this winter and Roth hopes that getting more roads plowed, sanded and deiced quicker will make the roads safer.
But, he said, motorists need to make sure to stay back from the plow so operators can get their job done quickly and safely.
“We plow at a max of 45 miles per hour and the traveling public is trying to go 70,” Roth said. “Safety for us is huge.”
When drivers encounter the vehicles, everyone needs to remember to keep their distance and be patient.
“We can be up and down (Main Street) pretty quick, if we don’t have any problems,” Steveson said. “If people could just give us 15 minutes of their time, we’ll have our job done.”