MERCER — The phone on Zach Miles’ desk jangled to life around noon Tuesday in the middle of a snowstorm that rolled through Mercer County.
The caller told Miles, PennDOT’s assistant Mercer County maintenance manager, that the agency’s crews had missed clearing a state road. But Miles knew better. And he had the evidence on his computer to prove it.
“It shows our snow plows had been on that road,’’ Miles said as he referred to the department’s tracking data.
The season’s first major winter storm began socking the area early Tuesday morning, and PennDOT had its 35 Mercer County-based trucks in action plowing snow, along with with spreading salt and anti-skid material. During heavy storms like this one, PennDOT’s 82 drivers in the county work mostly 12-hour shifts.
“It was a little bit of a struggle this morning with the amount of snow that was coming down,’’ Miles said of clearing roads.
The National Weather Service’s Pittsburgh office issued a severe weather alert for Mercer County and the surrounding area starting early Tuesday morning.
Several inches of snow fell 8 a.m. Tuesday in most of the county, accompanied with blustery winds hitting up to 35 mph that made seeing difficult. PennDOT lowered the speed limit to 45 mph on Interstate 80 Tuesday morning. The restriction was lifted early in the afternoon, when roads were clear with little snowfall.
Although there were mostly flurries for much of Tuesday afternoon, more snow arrived Tuesday evening. The brunt of the storm was forecasted to begin 1 a.m. this morning with more than 5 inches of snow accumulation, the Weather Service said. The severe weather alert was set to expire 7 a.m. today.
The storm’s timing made snow removal difficult, Miles said.
“You’re looking at the storm to end right at rush hour, and that makes it more difficult with all the traffic,’’ he said.
Miles oversees the agency’s county operations from in his office in Mercer. Like a military commander, he plots how to distribute snowplow trucks and tracks them with global positioning technology.
Using a computer, he monitors where the trucks are in real time and also where they have plowed. PennDOT has four cameras in the county with live video showing interchanges on interstates 79, 80 and 376. The interstates — along with vital roads in the county such as Routes 62, 18 and 58 — get first priority for snow removal, he said.
“After that we catch up on back roads that may have been missed,’’ Miles said.
A weather monitoring station near the Crawford County line feeds him information including the temperature, humidity and wind direction.
With this being the season’s first winter storm, salt supplies are bountiful. PennDOT is sitting on 2,500 tons of salt housed at its Mercer garage.
“I haven’t had any issues with supplies,’’ Miles said. “So far prices seem to be about the same as they’ve been for the past couple of years.’’
Mercer County is in PennDOT’s District 1, which covers Mercer, Crawford, Erie, Forest, Venango and Warren counties in northwestern Pennsylvania, If one county gets dumped on with snow, PennDOT snowplows from another county that got a light amount may be called in to help, said Jill Harry, a PennDOT spokeswoman in Oil City.
There’s a chance that may happen here. Parts of Erie County are forecasted to get up to 16 inches by today.
“Sometimes counties help each other out,’’ Harry said.
To track road conditions and snow removal operations, visit www.511pa.com or get the 511pa smart phone app.