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Plowing ahead on Elgin’s streets: City’s hills and trouble spots no match for this driver

A view out windshield  Elgsnowplow driver KevKujak as he gets ready Wednesday evening take pass over National Street hill

A view out the windshield of Elgin snowplow driver Kevin Kujak as he gets ready Wednesday evening to take a pass over the National Street hill, laying down salt and scraping snow off to the sides. | Janelle Walker for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 4, 2014 6:22AM

ELGIN — For 48 hours straight, Elgin public works department snowplow drivers were on the road, attempting to keep up with the snowfall.

Between Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the Fox Valley saw snow falling on and off — and mostly, on — for 48 hours straight, said Dan Rich, director of public works.

“It was persistent,” Rich said of the New Year’s storm. “The slight breaks have been whispers, 20 minutes and then right back” to more snow, he said.

Included in the storm, too, was lake-effect snow coming off of Lake Michigan on Thursday morning.

In the two days, Elgin accumulated between 9 and 11 inches of snow, Rich said.

Drivers working 23 routes put in 1,248 hours, driving 16,000 lane miles while attempting to keep up with the snow and keep a clear path on city streets.

One of those drivers was Kevin Kujak. An Elgin Water Department employee, Kujak drives snowplows in 12-hour shifts during the city’s snow events.

His first 12-hour shift began at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Kujak had gotten into his plow for his second 12-hour shift Wednesday afternoon when the truck broke down. He switched to an older, backup snowplow and headed to his route — the area between the Fox River on the east to Commonwealth Avenue on the west, and the city streets near Route 20 north to Highland Avenue.

It is one of the largest routes in the system, Kujak said.

He started on the streets south of Walnut Avenue. His partner — who had just finished his own 12-hour shift in the neighborhood — said it had been awhile since he’d been able to hit those streets and get two passes down the middle of each road.

Kujak was also responsible for the National Street hill — ensuring that snow is cleared from the major east-west roadway and that salt was spread on the often-slippery hill.

A busy hill

With a reporter in the truck for a two-hour ride-along to learn about the process, Kujak headed over to the National Street hill twice.

Sometimes, drivers would patiently wait for Kujak to go down the hill, make a turn just below the railroad tracks, then head back uphill for a second swipe of the snowplow’s blade.

Other cars just breezed by, not waiting for Kujak to make a clear path ahead.

Kujak tries to do the entire route in two or three hours. During heavy snow, or higher traffic, it can take up to four hours to complete the route. But ideally, he will make 2½ passes through the route during one shift.

Rumbling through the near-west and southwest neighborhood streets, Kujak ran the snowplow down the middle of the street, running in both directions.

He has a few snow lanes on his routes, where there are few if any cars parked on the street. But in many neighborhoods, he had to weave the lumbering truck in and out of parking lanes, going around both cars and garbage totes set out for Thursday collection.

During most of the shift and most of the route, Kujak wasn’t laying down salt, except for locations such National Street.

If plows use salt while the snow is still falling, it often just gets washed away by the new snow.

Alternately, Rich said, if the snow and salt mix, then refreeze with new snow above it, deep ruts can develop underneath.

Just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, Kujak’s supervisor called, telling him the radar showed a break coming in the snow. It was time to salt intersections and “trouble spots” on the route.

Those included hilly areas on the near-west side where cars might have problems making it up the incline.

The storm was, by most accounts, the largest snowfall to hit Elgin since February 2011, the “Groundhog Day” blizzard that shut down a large swath of northern Illinois.

The department was prepared for the snow, however, Rich said. They’d been watching the forecast and talking with the National Weather Service leading up to the first flakes falling on Tuesday.

Even before the sky began clearing Thursday afternoon, the snowplow drivers were in cleanup mode, pushing the snow not just out of the middle of streets but also clearing snow from curb to curb where possible.

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