- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - More equipment and manpower are needed for highway officials to improve their immediate responses to winter weather conditions in Arkansas, the director of the state Highway and Transportation Department said Tuesday.

Director Scott Bennett told House and Senate lawmakers and the state’s highway commissioners in two meetings that the department needs additional money to purchase more snow plows and hire more workers for snow and ice removal. The meeting was called by lawmakers to discuss the state’s response to a winter storm that dumped heavy sleet on eastern Arkansas last week, leaving motorists stranded for hours overnight on icy Interstates 55 and 40.

Sen. Bill Sample, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs, started the hearing, saying last week’s weather was a “perfect storm of record ice and sleet.” He said legislators wanted “to get the facts to learn from what’s happened.”

Bennett cited the unusual amounts of sleet that eastern Arkansas received as one of several factors that plagued the highway department in their response to the March 2 winter storm. He said forecasters had predicted about 1 to 2 inches in eastern Arkansas, but that part of the state saw much more.

He added that surrounding states didn’t receive as much sleet as Arkansas.

Bennett also told lawmakers that neighboring Missouri has more resources, including money, equipment and employees, than Arkansas does.

According to Bennett, Arkansas has six “snow belly plows” - vehicles that have plows on the front as well as underneath - to remove ice statewide, while Missouri has almost 600. Arkansas does have about 700 trucks to help remove ice, but not all are capable of having a plow attached, he said.

He mentioned Missouri transportation officials diverted their snow plow fleet toward southern areas of the state to clear ice. But Bennett said, if Arkansas highway officials decided to move their snow belly plows toward northern Arkansas, where ice was expected to fall, it would’ve hurt southern interstates instead.

“Could we be more aggressive in moving people from one part of the state to another?” he said. “Sure, we could have moved people on Saturday and Sunday from southern Arkansas to northern Arkansas, and then we would have even been in worse shape in southern Arkansas.”

Later in the state’s highway commissioners meeting, members discussed shutting down interstates when winter storms hit the state. Bennett said making those calls are difficult, because detours that drivers would have to take are likely to still be slick.

Bennett said the transportation department has spent $18 million this fiscal year in clearing icy roadways, after spending about $5 million last year. He said the department plans to purchase 12 snow belly plows in the next two years for ice and snow removal from money raised in selling the department’s older equipment.

“The most important thing I took away from it is that they’re working very hard on a plan on the future,” said Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis. “I think they demonstrated that they have taken this very seriously and that they’re developing a comprehensive plan so they can avoid such massive disruption in future.”