Tollway Crews Going the Extra Mile to Keep Roads Clear of Snow and Ice

Keeping a 294-mile network of high-speed highways clear of snow and ice during a ferocious winter takes tons of work, not to mention more than 77,000 tons of snow-melting road salt.

That’s how much Tollway crews have spread on our roads so far this winter to keep traffic moving during a string of storms that began in the last days of 2020 and continued into February.

That’s a lot of salt--the Tollway typically uses about 56,000 tons during an entire winter—and spreading that much salt takes a lot of work. With a Tollway snowplow carrying between 6 and 9 tons of salt, our plow drivers collectively have made nearly 8,000 runs this winter to clear the snow and ice off the pavement so drivers can safely reach their destinations.

And it wasn’t just salt—road crews this winter also have dispensed more than 29,000 gallons of liquid calcium chloride and another 11,000 gallons of brine, which helps remove ice and snow from pavement when temperatures plummet and salt becomes less effective.

“Since the beginning of the year, we’ve faced difficult weather conditions with frequent storms and intense cold, but we’re proud that our roadway maintenance workers have met the challenge by keeping our roads open and our customers safe,” said Illinois Tollway Executive Director José Alvarez. “We’re committed to providing the materials, equipment and staffing needed to keep our system operating even during the severe storms and frigid weather we’ve seen this winter.”

The season started slowly, with little snow through December. The first major storm that required a full callout of Tollway crews and plows didn’t strike until December 29.

But since then, storms have rolled through regularly, with more than 38 inches of snow falling at O’Hare International Airport in a four-week span between mid-January and mid-February. That’s more snowfall than typically occurs during an entire winter.

Tollway crews have responded with plows and heavy-duty doses of road salt.

During an intense weekend storm in late January that dumped a foot or more of snow on northern Illinois, plow crews worked around the clock for two days and spread more than 9,000 tons of salt to keep roads passable.

Then a wave of subzero temperatures and dangerous windchills only made it more difficult to keep the pavement clear and traffic moving.

Tollway crews were ready.

They added a mix of abrasives, including sand, to the salt they were spreading to help break up icy spots and frozen patches of snow that otherwise could make create hazardous conditions for drivers. 

“That helps prevent snow and ice from packing down on the roads and it makes it easier to plow everything off,” said Darrion Robinson, deputy chief of maintenance and traffic. 

Crews also stepped up their use of liquid calcium chloride and brine, mixing those solutions in with salt before it’s dispersed to help it better stick to the pavement and to work more effectively even in colder temps.

Pre-treating key portions of the system, particularly bridge and ramps, with salt or salt-and-brine solutions before storms also has helped keep roads clear.

Those steps—and a lot of hard work by roadway crews—have resulted in excellent traveling conditions on the Tollway’s five roads throughout the winter, despite the frequent storms and severe cold.

The Tollway has been restocking its supplies of de-icing materials, including ordering another 42,000 tons of salt, to ensure the roads remain safe and clear.

“We’re ready for whatever happens next,” Robinson said.

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