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State officials say pretreatment was ineffective as icy roads hit Connecticut Wednesday

Motorists across the state faced icy road conditions Wednesday morning, which caused hundreds of crashes and delays. Many questioned what went wrong with the Department of Transportation’s road pretreatment. Officials said just about everything that could go sideways did. But it was largely out of the agency’s control.

“The past two days were extremely cold days, and last night we had crews deployed at midnight to be ready to respond, but we had warm air and very cold pavement conditions,” said Garrett Eucalitto, DOT’s deputy commissioner.

Eucalitto said about 450 crews were deployed statewide, but what they found on the road was a lose-lose situation. The state has two pretreatment options available: liquid brine or rock salt mixed with magnesium chloride.

Brine is usually applied a day ahead of inclement weather. It adheres to the pavement and prevents ice from forming. But pavement conditions were too cold this time around for brine.

“Unfortunately we cannot deploy that if pavement conditions are 23 degrees or below because it will immediately freeze upon impact. Most roads across the state were 22 degrees or below Tuesday night,” Eucalitto said.

On the other hand, rock salt is spread before a major event or snowstorm when roads are wet. However, roads were completely dry Tuesday night going into Wednesday morning.

“If we had spread that rock salt in advance, vehicles driving over it would have crushed it. The wind from moving vehicles would have washed all the rock salt from the roadways to the shoulders,” Eucalitto said.

Instead of pretreatment, crews were stationed to spread rock salt as soon as precipitation started by 5 a.m. Yet, many motorists found themselves in dangerous situations.

Eucalitto said that by 8 a.m. Wednesday, the agency recorded 10 highway and exit ramp closures. The state police responded to 285 crashes, 30 of which included injuries, as of noon Wednesday. One crash was fatal. It is unknown how many crashes were directly related to icy road conditions.

“We have advanced technology monitoring pavement conditions. We are pretty technologically savvy when it comes to what will work or not on the pavement,” Eucalitto said. “It’s just one of those freak perfect storm-type events that we don’t see too often. Snow events are much easier to address.”

Eucalitto said if similar situations are seen again, the DOT could revisit pretreatment options. And as Connecticut expects more winter weather, staffing shortages could affect response times, especially during 12-to-24-hour snow events.

“That’s where we're going to have staffing impacting us. Employees need to take their breaks and can’t be on the roads for that long,” he said.

The DOT is short about 450 people due to vacancies and health conditions, including COVID-19 cases.

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.