MOORHEAD — Spring is on the way, but transportation officials are still thinking about snow.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation wants to partner with more farmers and landowners through its snow fence program, which is proving to make roads safer during blustery winter weather.

New statistics show the number of crashes and vehicles sliding off the road decreased this winter in a study area where structural snow fences and corn rows are in place along Interstate 94 between 34th Street South and Highway 336, east of Moorhead.

When the wind blows, fences catch snow, preventing it from forming drifts or creating icy spots on the road nearby.

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Kohl Skalin, District 4 maintenance superintendent, said the effort is part of MnDOT’s Toward Zero Deaths program to reduce vehicle crashes.

“Within a two-mile fenced area, we only had four crashes,” Skalin said, compared with 27 crashes during the same five-month period last winter.

Installation of snow fences along I-94 near Barnesville several years ago has also been a success.

Sgt. Jesse Grabow of the Minnesota State Patrol has patrolled the area for about 20 years. “We did see, from my experience, some reductions as far as number of crashes and vehicles sliding off the road in those areas, which was very beneficial,” Grabow said.

Safety and savings

Skalin said the MnDOT study examined several transportation and safety aspects. Numbers of vehicles off the road and crashes over a five-month period from last winter were compared with this winter.

The state patrol said its call load was cut in half in that two-mile stretch near Moorhead with a structural fence and corn rows.

From Nov. 1, 2017, through March 31, 2018, about 40 vehicles slid off the road. Of those, 27 involved crashes with an unknown number of injuries.

From Nov. 1, 2018 through March 31, 2019, with fencing in place, 18 vehicles left the road. Eight were involved in crashes, with one resulting in injuries.

Of those, only four crashes were in the protected area. The other four were just west of where corn rows stopped.

The crash reductions occurred during a winter that has been more severe than the previous, milder winter, the patrol said.

Skalin said the study also considered the number of snowplow runs and amounts of chloride or salt put down on that stretch of road protected by snow fencing.

Chloride usage was down 50 percent, he said. Without the fencing holding back snow, MnDOT would have had to apply 244 additional tons of salt to keep the road clear, he said.

Snow fencing has also cut back the number of times trucks had to plow the road. “We’re seeing, just in that little stretch, about $100,000 in operational savings,” Skalin said.

300 'snow traps' identified

MnDOT snowplow operators have identified more than 300 trouble spots, or “snow traps” across District 4, where snow fencing could improve winter travel conditions.

The fencing can be structural, living, including trees or shrubs, or vegetative, including corn rows or hay bales.

Skalin said this is the best time for farmers and landowners to sign on, with spring planting just around the corner. “Going into the spring season is a really good time for farmers because then they can adjust their headlands, where they turn their tractors around,” he said.

There are multiple ways landowners can be compensated for “catching” or storing snow on their property, depending on the type of fencing used. The negotiated agreements are flexible and can be customized, Skalin said.

They can be paid $1,000 to $2,000 an acre annually for corn rows. For a living snow fence, they may receive a Conservation Reserve Program payment and comparable snow-catch payment from the state. MnDOT also pays for the trees or plants.

MnDOT can also buy or lease the property where fencing would be installed. Anyone interested in partnering with MnDOT on snow fencing can call Skalin at 218-846-7943.