Beet juice the hottest new weapon for winter road crews

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By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Maryland has introduced a new element into its snow-fighting plan: beet juice. Mix sugar beet molasses with salt brine and you have an environmentally friendly -- and stickier -- way of preparing roads for snow and ice. As the winter approaches, all the region's transportation agencies are organizing plans to attack storms before they attack us. They say the squeeze on government revenue will not impede their snow-clearing efforts. Here's a look at what they're doing, and at what you can do to protect yourself:


The State Highway Administration maintains nearly 17,000 miles of lanes on numbered routes and can field up to 2,300 pieces of equipment to fight a storm. The salad dressing of surface treatments includes rock salt, salt brine and, now, sugar beet molasses.

Pre-treating: The beet juice, also used in the District since 2007, smells like ground cigarette butts and old coffee. It goes down on the road like flat soda -- very sticky -- and helps the salt brine adhere to the surface so it lasts longer and has more of a melting effect once ice and snow arrive. The non-corrosive solution will be used this winter in a pilot project on the roads of Frederick and Howard counties.

To get a head start on storms and reduce the amount of rock salt needed later, the sprayer trucks pre-treat interstate bridges, ramps and overpasses with salt brine up to 24 hours before a winter storm. Those places get priority because they tend to freeze first during a storm.

Clearing: The Statewide Operations Center near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport monitors a bank of TV screens fed by a network of roadway cameras. The center also receives information from road sensors, shares information among emergency departments, and deploys snowplows and salt trucks. The State Highway Administration has more than 332,000 tons of salt available for the winter.

Alerts: The operations center can alert travelers about changing conditions through the overhead message boards. But before leaving, check conditions by going online to and clicking on the CHART information center, which offers snow emergency information, traffic camera views, weather updates, maps showing average travel speeds on highways and road-closing reports. There's also a Winter Storm Hotline at 800-327-3125.


The District Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works share responsibility for treating and plowing 2,295 lane miles, bridges, overpasses and ramps. The District doesn't plow alleys.

Pre-treating: This year, the city plans to expand its pre-treating program with more spreaders to cover major roadways as well as the narrow and hilly streets in residential areas. Brine tanker trucks are used for pre-treating.

Clearing: The District has more than 200 pieces of equipment, including heavy and light plows. Residential streets are divided into 82 routes, and a plow is dedicated to each one. This fall, the plows were sent on a dry run to familiarize drivers with their routes. Plowing and salting efforts focus first on major roads, commuter routes and Snow Emergency Routes. Narrow, steep or shaded areas receive special attention, as do streets scheduled for next-day trash collection.

Alerts: Call the Mayor's Citywide Call Center at 311 to find out whether vehicles need to be removed from the Snow Emergency Routes. (To find a towed vehicle, call 202-727-5000.) Go to the District Department of Transportation's Web site,, and click on "Snow Plan" to get the latest on weather and road conditions. An online application,, allows residents to track the snowplows.


The Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for clearing snow and ice from almost 58,000 miles of state-maintained roads. The snow removal budget statewide is $80 million, with $28 million set aside for Northern Virginia.

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