Highway chief says winter storm response lacking in some areas

LITTLE ROCK — The head of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department said Wednesday that snow and ice removal during the recent winter storm was inadequate in some areas of the state, though he said it was not for lack of effort by highway crews.

“We did not achieve desirable or even acceptable results in some areas as our crews worked to clear highways during the recent winter storm,” state Highway Director Scott Bennett said in a statement issued by the department. “We are aware of and frustrated by the unsatisfactory conditions that persisted too long in some areas. We also know situations like this create perceptions that can only be addressed by improving the results we achieve, and that’s what we intend to do.”

After the wintry mix of freezing rain and snow moved through the state on Dec. 5 and 6, many residents, especially in the northwest corner of the state, complained that the roads and highways remained covered while the roadways just across the border in Missouri were clear.

Schools and businesses in northern and western Arkansas remained closed for several days because of icy roads after establishments began reopening in other areas affected by the storm.

AHTD spokesman Randy Ort said Wednesday the department came under heavy criticism after a photograph surfaced showing U.S. 71 clear on the Missouri side of the border but still covered on the Arkansas side.

“The boundaries where crew responsibilities matched up against each other, we had very inconsistent results,” Ort said. “We’re acknowledging, yeah, we did not see the results we wanted in some areas, so it’s fair to be critical of the results, but just don’t be critical of the crews.”

Bennett said highway department personnel worked around the clock fighting the storm.

“They are frustrated as well, but I am very proud of their dedication and hard work,” he said.

Neither Bennett nor Ort would say what specifically went wrong. Neither cited a lack of planning, personnel, equipment or materials.

Bennett did say the state recently invested in new equipment to help deal with winter storms, and that his department has talked with Missouri officials to share best practices.

He said the highway department has purchased new trucks to help plow the snow off roadways in the state’s northwestern counties. Known as a “belly plow,” the truck is larger and heavier than a regular snow plow and has a plow blade mounted under the body of the vehicle. The first “belly plow” truck was received about the time the storm hit the state. Three more have been ordered, he said.

Also, the department recently purchased a “tow plow” truck, which will be used on Interstates 40 and 540 in Northwest Arkansas.

“Our goal moving forward is to achieve better results when addressing winter weather conditions on our state highways,” Bennett said