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So long, snow: SD DOT adds tow plows, increases efficiency in clearing roads

The SD DOT is anticipating the purchase of three more tow plows before next winter.1 / 3
Southeastern South Dakota has a chance of snow Saturday, but the National Weather Forecast expects the accumulation to be about one-half inch.2 / 3
A switch inside the snowplow activates the tow plow to swing out — either left or right — to remove snow.3 / 3

MITCHELL, S.D.—South Dakota is boosting its snow-removal arsenal.

After the state Department of Transportation expanded its fleet with the addition of three tow plows prior to this winter season, officials are already planning to purchase three more before next winter.

"These tow plows help us do our jobs more efficiently and get the roads cleared sooner," said Jason Humphrey, Department of Transportation construction/maintenance engineer.

That's a win for South Dakota's drivers who battle the state's sometimes unwelcoming winter roads, Humphrey said. But many South Dakota drivers are unfamiliar with tow-plows since they first arrived in South Dakota two years ago, and there are only four total in the state.

Tow plows are operated behind the Department of Transportation typical plow trucks and, along with the front plow on the truck, can clear widths up to 25 feet. They're deployed on the state's largest roads, predominantly interstates, and allow the operator to remove snow from one lane and the shoulder in one pass.

They're pulled directly behind a truck like any other trailer, but a switch inside the truck activates the tow plow to swing out — either left or right — to remove snow. Some tow-plows even have features to treat roads with a liquid salt mixture.

The state's tow plows are stationed in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Junction City and Hot Springs, but Humphrey said the DOT is anticipating the purchase of three more before next winter to go to Sioux Falls, Rapid City and Chamberlain. Each tow plow costs about $140,000.

"It's an amazing machine, just awesome," said Curt Theisen, South Dakota's first tow-plow operator and lead highway maintenance worker for the DOT, based in Sioux Falls. "As far as the efficiency, I'm doing the job of two guys out there. Instead of having two trucks clearing the interstate, you have one truck and the tow plow doing the same job."

Humphrey said South Dakota took the lead from nearby states Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota, some of which have been using tow plows for six to eight years.

And not only is the state being more efficient with its snow removal, Humphrey said the tow plows are helping save money, too. A traditional snowplow costs about $3 per mile to operate, he said, while running a tow-plow costs about $1.37 per mile. So, what would otherwise cost $6 per mile for two trucks to clear costs about $4.37 per mile with a truck and a tow plow.

"And that doesn't take in account the savings we have in operators," he said.

Don't expect to see tow plows as the only vehicle of choice for the DOT, though. South Dakota has 400 snowplows statewide and about 418 full- and part-time employees who help with snow removal. But tow plows will be positioned strategically on major roadways, Humphrey said, as the state gets ready to bulk its fleet up to seven total by next winter.

And while Theisen certainly has "a blast" driving his tow plow, the upcoming forecast doesn't give him much to be excited about. Southeastern South Dakota has a chance of snow Saturday, but the National Weather Forecast expects the accumulation to be about one-half inch.

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