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Friday, August 14, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: As area fleet of tow plows grows, one driver makes driving the complex rig look easy

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 13, 2020

WSDOT's Kent Reitmeier drives a tow plow through a snow encrusted westbound Interstate 90 on Friday near Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSDOT's Kent Reitmeier drives a tow plow through a snow encrusted westbound Interstate 90 on Friday near Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

How many things was Kent Reitmeier doing as he pulled into traffic on an icy Interstate 90 on Friday, in the midst of the first major snowstorm of the year?

“A bunch,” Reitmeier said.

Indeed, it was hard to keep exact count. For one thing, he was driving a massive International tandem-axel plow truck equipped with a granular spreader. For another, he was pulling a second, 26-foot plow equipped with its own spreader. For yet another, Reitmeier was very precisely – with a series of electric buttons and levers – swinging that tow plow, as it’s known, out behind him as he curled around the on-ramp to clear as much of the roadway and shoulder as possible.

He was also applying – with another set of controls – between 150 and 200 pounds of salt and magnesium chloride (or pre-wet, as Reitmeier called it) per lane mile, depending on the conditions.

He was also answering the radio, operating a hands-free cellphone, monitoring an instrument panel and “dealing with the motoring public,” which is a euphemism for driving defensively while countless cars and trucks impatiently gathered behind him, some looking for any small opportunity to get around the tow plow and go faster than Reitmeier’s steady 35 mph.

Not that all of that multitasking seemed to bother the 15-year Washington Department of Transportation veteran.

“Here’s the fun part,” he said as he merged from the Geiger exit, entered the left lane and fully engaged the rear plow so it occupied the right lane at a 30-degree angle.

“When this thing is deployed,” he said. “I’m taking a cut from this yellow fog line to that white fog line – 24 feet.”

And that’s the whole point of the tow plow: It allows one (highly skilled) driver to do the job of two, clearing a pair of lanes in a single pass.

WSDOT spokesman Ryan Overton said the setup has been “hugely effective.” In part, that effectiveness has to do with cost: A plow truck can cost upward of $215,000, while the tow plow can be had for about $120,000, according to the department. A second truck also requires a second driver – and a second salary.

But as of Friday, the tow plow Reitmeier drove was the only one plying the roads of Washington.

That will soon change, though. The WSDOT Eastern Region’s Christmas present this year was a second tow plow, which was delivered Dec. 23. And Reitmeier spent the first part of his Friday shift, from about 4:30 to about 8:30 a.m., calibrating the new plow’s spreader and otherwise beginning the process of prepping it for action.

Once it’s fine-tuned and gets a license plate, it will become the state’s – and Spokane’s – second tow plow. It will be housed at WSDOT’s Wandermere shed and will mostly be used to clear the North Spokane Corridor.

The Department of Transportation is set to take delivery of a third tow plow this spring. It will be used mostly on the stretch of I-90 between Barker Road and the Idaho state line.

For now, though, the technology is mostly confined to a 48-mile stretch of I-90 between about the Garden Spring exit and the Fishtrap exit – a stretch Reitmeier knows well.

“This is my stomping ground. I grew up right over here,” he said as the truck neared the Salnave Road exit. “That was our homeplace.”

His homeplace was a dairy farm. But when the now-56-year-old graduated high school, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. The man who picked up the farm’s milk helped answer that question for him, inviting him into the cab of his truck and saying, “Get in, you’re gonna learn how to drive a truck,” Reitmeier recalled.

It was true. Reitmeier went on to drive milk trucks, grain trucks and tractor-trailers, as well as tractors, plows and much else.

“You name it, I’ve driven it,” he said.

Most important to the job he was doing Friday, though, was his time working on farms, both the dairy farm of his youth and the wheat farm he and a friend ran until recently.

“For me, it was similar to driving a piece of farm equipment,” he said of his first time behind the wheel of a tow plow, about five years ago. “I’ve driven a lot of wing plows.”

With all that experience, Reitmeier makes operating two plows and two spreaders at the same time, in snow, look easy. But it’s not.

“If you were driving behind me, you’d think I was jackknifing,” he said while an extremely long line of cars lined up behind him. “Because that’s what it looks like: a truck jackknifing.”

That may be true. But from the cab, what Reitmeier was doing felt as sturdy as a wooden pew. And while many modern cars have all kinds of automatic sensors and cameras, Reitmeier’s rig doesn’t.

“I’m just going off of feel right now,” he said. “Because I can’t see nothing there – ” he gestured out one window whose view was blocked with a steady spray of snow – “and I can’t see nothing there” – he gestured out the other window, where the same thing was happening.

Reitmeier has harrowing tales of drivers making risky attempts – some successful – to sneak around him. But on a Friday run to Fishtrap and back, people seemed mostly OK to sacrifice speed for the sake of a more open road.

And that’s all Reitmeier asks.

“Just be patient and hang back,” he said, “because we’re trying to make these roads passable for them. We’re trying to help them get from point A to point B.”

Work to watch for

Road crews aren’t exactly out in force this time of year, except of course to deal, like Reitmeier, with the winter weather that arrived in force on Friday and is expected to continue this week.

To help them get that work done, drivers in the city of Spokane are asked to park on the odd side of the street during snow season, which officially runs from Nov. 15 to March 15 in residential areas.

Another thing you can do to help your fellow citizens get where they’re going: shovel your sidewalk. This isn’t, officially, a choice. A city law declares that people “shall keep the sidewalk areas adjacent to any portion of the real property (including corners) free and clear of snow and/or accumulations of snow or ice.”

Despite that “shall,” no punishments are attached to scofflaws who don’t comply. The city pondered billing property owners to remove the snow with crews, but ultimately decided against it a couple of years ago. So you’ll have to rely on your conscience in this case.

STA service changes

A number of changes to Spokane Transit bus schedules go into effect starting Sunday. Affected routes are the 4, 21, 23, 27, 33, 34, 43, 45, 61, 62, 63, 66, 67, 68, 74, 95, 341, 662 and 663. For details, visit spokanetransit.com/ride-sta/service-changes-january-19.

Keller Ferry reopens

Some 60,000 vehicles cross Lake Roosevelt on the Keller Ferry each year, according to WSDOT, but the 20-car-capacity M/V Sanpoil was grounded for a month for repairs, sending drivers about an hour out of their way to connect to the two sides of Highway 21.

But as of last Monday, the ferry was back in operation with a strengthened hull, refurbished propellers and other repairs. That should ease the commute from Wilbur to Republic.

What matters to you?

I’m new to Spokane and new to writing this column, so I’m eager to know what matters to people as they move around town.

Live in an area that’s underserved by public transit? Have an idea for how a nightmare intersection could be improved? Wish your neighborhood had more stop signs? Wondering about progress on a certain street project? Frustrated with how a supposed road improvement turned out? Know someone whose arduous commute shows a gap in the local transit system? Think there are elements of area transit planning that have been overlooked?

If so, please feel free to be in touch via the contact information below with your questions, concerns and thoughts about transportation issues important to you.

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