Lincoln, Omaha take different approaches to treating streets during winter storms

Jan. 22, 2024, 9 a.m. ·

Lincoln snowplow driver Brett Bratrsovsky stands in front of his snowplow after finishing a 12-hour shift. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

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On a blustery Friday morning in January, Brett Bratrsovsky is in the final hours of a twelve hour shift as a snowplow driver for the city Lincoln.

It’s the second time in a week the city has issued a snow emergency, which means Bratrsovsky has worked several 12 and even 16-hour shifts.

By 10 a.m. Bratrosovsky has been plowing a route through the eastern part of the city for 10 hours, while around eight inches of snow from Winter Story Gerri pile up.

He says the roads have slowly improved throughout the morning as more cars pack down the snow, but it’s still piling up faster than the plows can manage.

On his way to 84th Street, Bratrosovsky puts his plow down and begins clearing snow along another snowplow driver’s route.

“What I usually do is I drive to my route and I’ll put my blade down and help the other guys out,” he said. “No matter what, the snow has to get off the road, so I might as well do it on the way out.”

At 84th Street, Bratrsovsky’s 10 foot tall snow plow is joined by a tractor with a snowplow blade attached to it and the two work in tandem to keep the street clear.

The operation is effective in clearing the roads, but it can create near whiteout conditions as the piles of fluffy snow come blustering back into the windshield, making visibility near impossible.

That still wasn’t enough to stop some cars from attempting to pass the two plows by going between them.

While Bratrsovsky says snowplow drivers aren’t at legal fault for most collisions while plowing or laying down material, there is no law against passing a snowplow.

Bratrsovsky Snowplow
Brett Bratrosovksy clears snow along 84th Street during a snowstorm on Friday, January 12. He says it can be difficult to see drivers trying to pass the snowplow from his perspective. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

That’s something he’d like to see changed, given the dangers of the maneuver.

“A lot of these people, they just drive without lights on and can't see the cars because they're caked over with snow or they just don't have their lights on and it's a guessing game,” Bratrosvosky said. “Hopefully you don't hit anybody.”

He wishes more drivers would have patience and stay behind snow plows, despite their slower speeds.

“It just takes an extra 30 minutes of your day to sit behind me.,” Bratrosovsky said. “Fastest I can go is 25. At the end of the day, at least you're getting there safely and the road is clear.”

Bratrsovsky, along with the other drivers for LTU, only plow major city streets during winter storms.

Clayton Engelman, the transportation maintenance coordinator for the city of Lincoln, says major arterials remain the city’s priority after the snow stops falling.

“Once the snow stops, that's usually what we call zero hour,” Engelman said. “And then at that point, we try to get the streets, the main streets, fully cleared before we move on into residentials.”

Four years ago, the city began hiring contractors to plow residential streets during major storms.

Engelman says the process has been a learning curve, but he believes the program will pay off in the long run.

“Four years seems like a long time to figure it out, but in the four years, I think we've plowed residentials, about six, seven times,” Engelman said. “When you spread that out over the course of four years, there's a big gap there.”

In addition to plowing, Lincoln uses a special formula of brine on roads to melt ice and snow.

The brine is manufactured by the Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Department and the city says it is effective at temperatures as low as negative fifteen degrees.

But in Omaha, the strategy is different.

Steven Rue, construction street maintenance engineer for Omaha says the city doesn’t use brine when it gets too cold, which was the case throughout last week’s storm.

“Our experience is that brine will just make it worse,” Rue said. “It'll create a melting effect for the beginning of the storm. Once those pavement temperatures drop down too low, it starts to freeze to the road, so you start to have that ice buildup on the road. So for this storm, no brine, no salt.”

Instead of brine and salt, Omaha uses sand to help with traction on icy roadways. Rue said the city used a lot of sand at 90th and Dodge, 33rd and Ames and 30th and Dodge.

That’s distinct from Lincoln, where the city says it limits its use of sand because it can be crushed into the snow and moved away from driving surfaces in as little as three vehicle passes.