How does the streetcar deal with winter weather?

Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 14, 2016
and last updated 2017-01-05 10:09:11-05

This story was originally published Dec. 14, 2016. We are featuring it again because of Thursday's snowfall

CINCINNATI -- If the Queen City has learned anything since the launch of its first on-street rail transit system in decades, it's that Cincinnati's streetcar is subject to many of the same complications that everyday drivers encounter.

Winter weather is no exception.

But the installation of 3.6 miles of streetcar track throughout the streets of Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and The Banks means the city will need to implement new winter weather clearance measures.

In a memo issued Nov. 21, City Manager Harry Black outlined the major additions to the city's snow-removal program, chief among them being a 9-foot wide spinning broom affixed to the front of a John Deere tractor, referred to in the memo as a "sweepster." The broom design is intended to mitigate damage to the streetcar track rails that might otherwise be caused by a traditional snowplow, Black said.

The $68,000 piece of equipment is one of several recommendations made by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which oversees operations of the Cincinnati Bell Connector, for clearing snow from the roadway both efficiently and in a way that will not cause harm to the rails, Black said.

The sweepster is housed at the streetcar's Maintenance and Operations Facility, located at Henry and Race streets in Over-the-Rhine. All Transdev employees -- the firm hired to operate the streetcar -- handling the equipment already have been trained by the vendor, according to the memo.

According to city spokesman Rocky Merz, Tuesday morning's wintry mix -- the first significant winter weather event of the season -- did not elicit use of the sweepster. 

The 2017 Farmers' Almanac is calling for a "numbingly cold" winter in the Tri-State this year, although it's a forecast 9 On Your Side meteorologist Jennifer Ketchmark says we should take with a grain of salt. 

Snow clearing isn't the only way the city's winter weather efforts will vary now that the streetcar is up and running. As for deicing, salt, salt brine, and a calcium chloride mix are the primary methods the city uses to prevent or remove ice accumulation from the streets.

But along the streetcar route, the strategy is a bit more colorful.

RELATED INFOGRAPHIC: Just how ready is Cincinnati to deal with heavy snowfall?

Formerly kept as a backup for salt shortages due to increased winter storm events in recent years, the transit authority recommends using beet juice -- in addition to brine and calcium chloride -- as a deicing agent, in that it is less corrosive to the metals contained in the streetcar tracks.

The city currently holds about 21,500 gallons of beet juice in reserve for deicing, Black said.

"This is a recommendation that the city will follow," Black said in the memo. 

Beet juice can have a freezing point as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit, as compared to more traditional salt blends, which can lower a surface's freezing point to about 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

SORTA's recommendations are part of the city's recent efforts overall to get ahead of snow-removal headaches that can be commonplace during the winter months.

City leaders unveiled last week the new CincyInsight's data web portal. A creation of Cincinnati's Office of Performance Data Analytics, CincyInsights presents citywide data collected by the OPDA in a visual format -- “dashboards” -- that’s accessible, interactive and user-friendly.

Part of this data is real-time snowplow location information, updated every five to 10 minutes using GPS data from the city’s snowplows to show where the plows are, where they’ve been, how many miles they’ve plowed, and how many miles are plowed per hour. Users of the snowplow dashboard can plug in their street name or zip code and a map in the center of the dashboard display will focus on their neighborhood. 

“Anyone who’s interested in tracking a snowplow or tracking a particular street during a snow event will be able to use this dashboard to see where a snowplow is at any given point in time,” Black said Dec. 7, while unveiling the new data tool.

As of its implementation, the sweepster's location is not included in the live GPS data aggregated by the CincyInsights portal, Merz told WCPO, but the machine has the technical capacity to be included in the future.

In a news release issued Tuesday, Black said crews began pre-treating priority routes with deicing materials Monday night.

In addition to the sweepster and beet juice store, the city of Cincinnati boasts 89 snow-removal vehicles, 27,000 tons of salt, 39,500 gallons of calcium chloride, and 78,000 gallons of brine.

The city offers these recommendations when navigating snow- or ice-covered streets:

  • Utilize off-street parking when possible.
  • Allow more time when planning a commute.
  • Brake gently to avoid skidding.
  • Reduce speed and leave plenty of room to stop.
  • Remember: Roads may refreeze throughout the day after treatment.
  • Always use headlights and keep windshield clean.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and development for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

Elements of this story were previously reported by WCPO contributor Matt Koesters (@mattkoesters).