Friday, February 22, 2013

TowPLow Follow Up - DOT Replies With More Details

[There are a number of well known epistolary novels.  Well, this is an E-pistolery blog post.  I didn't intend it that way, but my correspondent said what he had to say succinctly and it doesn't make sense to rearrange his words.  And blogs have no space limitations. This way you get everything in context including the interchange between blogger and the department's public relations officer.  Including my dumb mistake which we got past with civility.] 

I got more details
  • On the costs of the snow plows and transportation
  • Why Juneau and Soldotna got the first two
  • Why they came by barge instead of ferry (Jeremy mostly said Alaska Marine Highway)
Basically, tow plows are one-third the cost of a regular snow plow, but they have to be towed by a regular plow.  So if you have four lane or bigger roads, it can make sense to use them and free up a regular plow to do other roads.

Before I posted up my previous post on the Alaska TowPLow experiment I sent an email reply to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTPF) Public Relations Officer, Jeremy Woodrow, whose contact information was on the original press release and asked a few questions about the costs and benefits of the new equipment.

I asked:
"is there any information on the costs of the TowPlow compared
 to regular equipment and analysis of whether the extra costs will be
 balanced by savings or just by faster clearing?"
Meanwhile, I saw that the ADN already had up an article that included the costs that they'd gotten from DOT and so I added that into my piece and posted.

Then I got an email back from Jeremy:
Thanks for your inquiry. The numbers you requested are as follows:
 New Snowplow = $260K
 New Towplow = $90K   
Monthly Operating and Replacement Costs for Snowplow = $3700 Monthly Operating and Replacement Cost for Towplow = $1100   
While the cost savings are significant with the towplow, I should point out that a towplow might not necessarily work for every snow removal situation. This is why the department is taking a slow approach with introducing the new device across the state. With that said there will also never be a situation where we can replace snowplows outright, as there are many situations where the benefits of a snowplow outweigh that of a towplow.   
Please let me know if I can be of any more help.
Since my initial inquiry, I'd done online research and so I had more questions:
"Jeremy, I appreciate your reply.  Since I emailed you, the ADN had the $90,000 figure and said it included "shipping and installation."  I found reports online that said North Dakota and Pennsylvania paid right around $74,000 for their tow plows.  Does installation refer to modifying the existing plows to attach the tow plows to them?  How much was installation and how much was transportation?  How did they get to Juneau and Soldotna?  Did the Juneau [tow plow] come by ferry from Bellingham? 
That would seem a good way to go since DOT also owns the ferry system and traffic in the winter should mean there was plenty of room.  At  the very least, the state ferry would get the payment."
And I got a pretty quick and long response that answers a lot of questions.

 Hi Steve,
 I read your blog post regarding the towplow. Journalists and bloggers usually identify themselves, which helps folks, such as myself, provide timely and accurate information. [This is a valid point and I shouldn't have assumed that he would know I was a blogger simply because I was on their mailing list and my email address contains the name of the blog.  There are things that good journalism training would have embedded in me.  I do introduce myself as a blogger when I talk to people and I shouldn't have made assumptions here.  I did apologize in the next email, which he graciously acknowledged.] I've worked with numerous bloggers throughout my career and appreciate the personal viewpoint that bloggers can convey where many professional journalists cannot.   
I noticed that you found some very good information online and raised some valid questions as to what DOT's must consider when purchasing a towplow. Those, among others, are all items that Alaska DOT&PF must weigh against the benefits before ultimately deciding to purchase any snow removal equipment (snowplow, towplow, grader, etc.). In your blog post, you cited PennDOT's break down of the cost for modifications from the actual cost of the towplow. In order to provide you similar numbers, I spoke with our State Equipment Fleet (SEF) manager and was able to gather the following information.
The actual cost for each towplow was $89,127, which included shipping to Seattle and installation and training by the manufacturer. The cost of the towplow has a few variables which include the ballast used on the trailer (tanks, sander, etc) and number of towplows purchased.  
Each towplow then had to be shipped to the respective destinations. The cost to ship the towplow to Soldotna was $7,170, a little less to Juneau. The department did not ship via Alaska Marine Highway because it would have actually cost much more when combining the cost of trailering the towplow from Seattle to Bellingham, modifying a truck in Washington that would be capable of trailering the towplow, and then having a truck on the receiving end be capable of trailering the towplow from Whittier to Soldotna. Logistically and fiscally this did not make sense. The best solution for safe transport of the towplow was to pay for shipping from Seattle to Soldotna/Juneau and then
arrange to modify only the truck intended to trailer the towplow at each location.
[The tow plow has to be pulled by an existing snow plow, so the snow plow has to be modified so the new tow plow can be connected to it.]
The required truck modifications came to $5,700 in Soldotna and $10,000 for Juneau.  The Juneau cost was higher because it's an older truck that required more equipment. In both locations the modification cost included a rear-facing camera on the trucks that provide the operator a more complete view of the trailer while in motion - the department viewed this as a necessary item for both the safety of the operator and other drivers.  
From my understanding the first weekend deployment for the towplow went well in Soldotna. Juneau is still waiting for snow, as it's been unusually warm and rainy the last two months. In both situations, only time will tell if the towplow is the right piece of equipment for Alaska's roads. The potential cost savings, as illustrated in my  previous email, are significant but more importantly the towplow must meet the performance standards that our Maintenance and Operations crews have set for clearing roadways in a timely, safe and professional manner.  
Lastly, Alaska DOT&PF is always actively researching new or improved methods for operations. This is in an effort to operate the department, as a whole, more efficiently. The towplow serves as an excellent example by providing an improved level of service through more efficient means.

 If you have any more questions, please feel free to contact me at your convenience.

 Best Regards,
I did have more questions, but first let me just point out that the company that makes these tow plows has offices in New York and Missouri.

Missouri is the headquarters for people ordering TowPlows from the Midwest and Western US.  So the cost to ship it to Seattle should be more than to North Dakota or to Pennsylvania, the two places I found significantly lower purchase costs for (@$74,000).

Also, Jeremy followed up with info on their subscription list:
Hi Steve,

 I didn't mean to put you on the spot, but apology accepted. As an FYI, your email
is on our distribution list managed through the department's GovDelivery
email service. You can manage your subscription via the following link:



When I looked there I saw different types of stories checked off and I vaguely remembered doing that.  I clearly did subscribe, but I can't remember what instigated it.  Other releases come by email too and I know I didn't ask for them.  But it's interesting to  see what I get and then see what other media do with the releases.  And sometimes I find something interesting enough to post about it.  Like this one. 

My last two questions:
Jeremy, not an issue, it was a good reminder for me.  But as I'm trying
to write this, I have a couple more questions:

1.  Why were Soldotna and Juneau picked instead of Anchorage or Matsu or
Fairbanks which have a lot more road where the tow plows could be used? 
I got a comment from a Juneau reader that they only have ten miles of
four lane road, the ADN got comments on Soldotna.

2.  I understood that the Marine Highway wouldn't have made sense for the
Soldotna tow plow, but I don't see why the Juneau one couldn't have been
shipped directly to Bellingham.  I'm assuming that they didn't come on
one truck from the manufacturer to Seattle.  Bellingham's only 90 miles
from Seattle and the added distance would probably be less if it was
going directly to Bellingham from the factory, so I can't see that that
would add that much after the a cross-country trip.  I'm sure there's a
good reason and I don't want to waste your time unnecessarily, so I'll
stop at just these two questions.

My assumption, based on what you've written so far is that there are
good, if not obvious to the outsider, reasons.  And those details will
probably reassure my readers that DOTPF was doing their job.  We all seem
to know much better than those involved when we don't have the relevant


And a speedy response from Jeremy:
Good questions. Soldotna and Juneau were both selected because each
location was in need of an extra snowplow truck for its maintenance
fleet. Given the price of a brand new plow truck, the department did not
have the funds to purchase a truck for both locations. It would have been
one or the other. This required the department to think outside the box
and explore alternative methods for how we could achieve the same
function of two trucks with limited funds. In both cases a towplow seemed
to be an appropriate solution given that it would allow one truck to
clear the major multi-lane arterials using a conventional snowplow truck
trailering a towplow while freeing up a second truck to clear other
roads. Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks did not have an immediate need for
a new snowplow truck. If/when either of those locations expresses the
need for a new snowplow truck, then the department will evaluate whether
a towplow would be an appropriate replacement/addition. In regards to
your Juneau reader: whether there are 10 or 50 miles of four lane road,
it still requires two trucks in procession to safely and timely clear the

In regards to shipping via the Alaska Marine Highway. DOT&PF often uses
AMHS to transport construction equipment, etc. when space is available
and it is usually the first option explored when transporting any item.
The shipping to Seattle was negotiated as part of the purchase price for
each towplow. I'm not sure how they were actually shipped (rail or
truck). I do know that the department explored the ferry option and, due
to logistics and the expense, it made more sense to ship via barge to
both locations.

If you would like more information, please feel free to call me and I can
explain my above answers with further detail

Thanks again for you interest,


And that's it.  We could drill down further - and Jeremy seemed to enjoy providing the information - but I don't think there's anything here to 'uncover.'   Instead I'd say we probably had public officials doing their jobs well. 

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