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  • Transportation crew works 24 hours to clear boulders, snow from Mt. Lemmon

    Jan 19, 2017 | Read More News
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    While many Pima County workers had a three-day holiday weekend Jan. 14-16, four highly-experienced Department of Transportation workers were clearing 800-pound boulders and several inches of snow from the Mt. Lemmon Highway so Pima County residents could frolic in the flurries.

    Pima County Transportation has workers on-call year-round to respond to road emergencies of all types, particularly during winter storms when it’s the department’s responsibility to keep the road to Mt. Lemmon open.

    “We need to keep at least one lane open in case of an emergency situation,” said Rafael Tapia, public works crew supervisor. 

    The PCDOT crew, led by Tapia, started paving the way to Mt. Lemmon at 7 a.m. Sunday until about 3 p.m. when they’d finally worked all of the way up the 25-mile highway. 

    At about 8 p.m., after spending most of the day at work, Tapia received a call from the Sheriff’s Department asking his crew to go back and clear a large rock slide blocking nearly three quarters of the road between mileposts 8 and 9. 

    Tapia’s crew immediately sprung to action and made the trek back up to Mt. Lemmon where they encountered several additional rock slides along the way. All totaled, they cleared eight rock slides from the highway.

    “They often happen with the rainy weather more than the snow and seem to be more frequent after the two major fires that happened several years ago,” said Joe Soto, public works manager for DOT’s Maintenance Operations Division. “This weekend was the first in a while where we had to close the roads due to rock slides rather than snow.”

    To clear the rock slides, the team relied heavily on the fog lights, beacon lights, and spot lights mounted to their equipment to help them see through the thick fog and still-falling snow. DOT’s equipment operators used large snow plows to push the smaller rock slides off the road and brought in front loaders to clear the large slides. For the large boulders, they used specialized equipment to first break up the rocks. 

    The crew worked from about 9 p.m. Sunday to 10 a.m. Monday. 

    Tapia and his team are among the nine workers in DOT’s Maintenance Support Division assigned to work on Catalina Highway. Most have between 10 to 20 years’ experience working on Mt. Lemmon and know the areas that require added safety measures, such as de-icing chemicals, prior to major storm events. 

    In addition to DOT’s expertise, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department plays a key role in ensuring the public’s safety along Catalina Highway by reporting hazards to DOT, monitoring the conditions of the roads and closing the roads when necessary. 

    “We work very closely with the Sheriff’s Department to evaluate every snow storm event for the safety of the public, our employees and Sheriff deputies stationed on the highway,” Soto said. “Our goal is to open the road to all traffic without any restrictions.”

    Transportation crews have already begun staging equipment and prepping the roads to Mt. Lemmon for the snowfall expected starting Jan. 20. Forecast reports indicate a probable chance for up to 2 feet of snow through Jan. 24. Before making plans to visit Mt. Lemmon, call the Pima County Sheriff’s road condition hotline at (520) 547-7510.

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