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Published February 13 2010

TowPLow heads out on interstates

Bob Lannert was just a farm boy with a bold idea.

As he watched freeways expand into fields of concrete up to five lanes wide in each direction, the Missouri Department of Transportation engineer knew the state would struggle to afford the extra trucks and drivers needed to keep roads clear of snow.

So, back on the farm, he hooked a 30-foot cable from one tractor to another to see how far out he could steer the towed rig.

Based on the results, he drew up plans for a steerable, pull-behind snowplow attachment in 1998.

“It was my goal to take one truck and do the work of two or three trucks,” he said.

By 2005, the TowPLow – the capital “L” is for Lannert – was clearing freeways in Kansas City, Mo.

Now, North Dakota has joined the growing list of states using the TowPLow to tidy up roads faster and cheaper.

Department of Transportation officials demonstrated the state’s first TowPLow on Friday at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo.

The attachment has a 26-foot-wide blade that, when pulled at a 30-degree angle, cuts a path 14 1/2 feet wide.

It’s pulled by a snowplow truck that blazes a trail 10 1/2 feet wide.

“We’re going from 10 1/2 feet to 24 to 25 feet in one pass. That’s like having two trucks out there,” said Troy Gilbertson, highway maintenance coordinator for NDDOT’s Fargo district.

At a cost of about $75,000, the TowPLow is cheaper than buying another $180,000 snowplow truck, and it eliminates the need for another driver, he said.

“It makes you more efficient,” he said.

Made in Ontario, the TowPLow has been used in Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Utah.

Minnesota first tested the TowPLow in November 2007 and now has three in the Twin Cities and one each in St. Cloud and Monticello, MnDOT spokeswoman Chris Joyce said.

The model purchased by North Dakota features two 1,000-gallon tanks and a spray bar that can spread anti-icing chemical on the road as it’s being plowed.

A laser mounted on a rearview mirror projects a green line onto the road so the plow operator can see the outer edge of the TowPLow’s path.

Gilbertson said the TowPLow will initially be used only on Interstates 29 and 94 in the Fargo area. If it works well, the state will likely buy more, he said.

Metro-area motorists should be aware that the TowPLow could be deployed as soon as this weekend, Gilbertson said.

“If you approach it from the rear, by all means do not pass, because you may not know that that’s there in the snow fog,” he said.

Of the 80 TowPLows currently in use, Lannert said only one has been involved in an accident, when a teenage driver struck one from behind in Kansas City four weeks ago.

Still, because of the TowPLow’s size, it’s been “a real struggle” to convince agencies to adopt the concept.

“It’s so radical compared to what they’ve ever done,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528