For plow drivers, just another long, cold shift

28 hours not unusual for veteran worker

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / December 28, 2010

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NEWTON — John Wrenn was clearing the eastbound breakdown lane on the Massachusetts Turnpike yesterday, spreading salt and sending a plume of snow flying off the edge of his wing plow, when a white Nissan Cube and a black Toyota pickup zoomed past him on the approach to Newton Corner.

A blizzard warning remained in effect, and flashing signs cautioned drivers not to exceed 40 miles per hour. But steady plowing and salting from Wrenn and his fellow drivers had left the Pike looking clean, and emboldened motorists raced past — despite inevitable patches of ice and lingering flurries.

“Any time they look at the road and it’s black, they just think they can fly,’’ said Wrenn, shaking his head at the midmorning traffic. In 32 years of plowing the busiest stretch of the Pike, he has seen hundreds of cars career off the road as a result of overzealous winter acceleration, including a few yesterday.

Wrenn reached the Allston tolls and pulled a U-turn to return to the Turnpike’s Weston depot, halfway through what was probably his 13th or 14th 20-mile loop in 24 hours, all taken at deliberate speed on a run the plow drivers call the Main Line.

“There were so many I couldn’t tell you,’’ said Wrenn, who plowed and salted more than 300 miles along the Main Line during a 28-hour shift. It was just another storm for Wrenn, who worked 72 hours straight during the April Fool’s Day blizzard of 1997.

Most of the state’s highways are plowed by contractors with their own trucks, but the Mass Pike and its interchanges remain the domain of full-time employees, former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority workers absorbed last year in the merger that created the new state Department of Transportation. The plow drivers are technically heavy equipment operators, and most of the year they work in eight-hour shifts to patch potholes, repair guardrails, paint lines, and cut grass. But in the winter they are called to work continuously through each storm, fueled by coffee and the occasional catnap on a bedroll or air mattress in a cavernous garage.

The big storms define the job. “Any body can cut grass. Anybody can fix potholes, but public safety is number one, and snow is the main thing we do,’’ said Steve Purcell, supervisor of the Department of Transportation’s Highway Division District 6-C, which includes the Pike from Weston to Allston and the two dozen plow drivers who keep it clear.

“They have fun to a point . . . but it’s certainly not for everybody,’’ Purcell said. “If you’re not the type of person that can stay up days on end and still function, it’s not for you.’’

In 6-C, the most veteran plow drivers such as Wrenn operate the spreader trucks, 30-ton behemoths armed with a 12-foot front plow and 11-foot wing plow, as well as 18 cubic yards of road salt. The others handle smaller trucks and front-end loaders, used mainly for interchange ramps and toll plaza aprons.

On the Main Line, the spreaders go out in convoys of three, covering the width of the highway in a staggered formation for safety. At night, on the sections that lack light towers, the lead truck hugs the inside lane, relying on its own spotlights to find the yellow line or driving by feel along the rumble strip. The next two trucks use the lead to find their lanes.

Except in the dead of night, when a stretch of the Pike that carries 120,000 daily vehicles is at its emptiest, the operators work in pairs, one driving and the other watching the blind side for traffic. It can be exhilarating, with spotlighted flakes flying at the windshield and a high arc of snow flying off the wing plow.

“Watching it come off the plow when you’ve got to push a ton of snow is just cool — it’s amazing,’’ said Ed Gillen, Wrenn’s partner for the past decade on a Main Line spreader. “But this stuff right here, it’s just annoying,’’ he added, referring to the salt-only duties in the hours after the heaviest snowfall is over, when plow crews need to remain vigilant against blowing and drifting snow and a thin layer of slush or ice, amid increasingly heavy traffic.

At the Weston tolls, Gillen deftly weaved through a narrow tollbooth.

“That’s easy,’’ he said, as a pair of sleek, black cars darted from neighboring booths to vie for the same lane. “This is the tricky part. Now you’ve got to dodge them, and they’re not going to give you an inch of space.’’

Back in the barracks, the men watched the news and ribbed each other while waiting to head out again, all of them old Pike-clearing hands.

Wrenn, 59, started in the fall after the blizzard of ’78, following a few years as a commercial driver.

Gillen, 43, is a second-generation Pike worker who began at 18, counting toll receipts.

Bob Boyd, a bearded, heavy-set driver the others refer to as “Bad Santa,’’ groused at the TV, which showed snowfall totals exceeding a foot in some areas, but considerably less in others, despite blizzard predictions.

“They never get it right,’’ said Boyd, in a room decorated with an oversized highway map and a “Santa was a Teamster’’ bumper sticker. The news switched to a shot of Boston, where a state of emergency remained in effect. “Come on, really?’’ Boyd said. “What . . . would they do if it really snowed?’’

At 3 p.m., Purcell sent most on their way, leaving a post-storm skeleton crew. “Right now I feel good,’’ said Wrenn, ready to crash and recharge for his regular 7 a.m. shift today. “Good to be going home.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at