When the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s eastern region faces big problems, they turn to the heavyweights of their fleet — Mack® trucks. From snow and ice to tornadoes, washouts and rock slides, their Mack Granite® and Pinnacle™ models can handle it. And when there isn’t a big problem, their Macks keep the highways open by getting pavement patched before a small problem gets out of hand.
TDOT regional operations engineer Benjamin Price keeps a sharp eye on everything from his Knoxville, Tennessee, office, which overlooks Interstate 40. He manages nine construction offices, six district maintenance offices and more than $500 million per year in roadway contracts.
On his computer, hundreds of photographs document his trucks in action. With 17 years in the industry, he has seen more than his share of highway projects and roadway hazards.
The department’s day-to-day operations include keeping the interstates, principal arterials and designated state routes mowed and free of potholes and debris. The Macks are used for more demanding projects, such as paving and repairing the roads following rock slides. Price keeps two Pinnacle axle forward models are on standby, each with a flatbed loaded with paving and repair equipment ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
During wintry or severe weather, the fleet operates at full utilization. As soon as snow or ice is predicted, the crews begin preparations to deploy. The Knoxville area typically has three to four plowable events each winter, whereas counties in the mountainous northeast quadrant of Tennessee may plow dozens of times a year.
“We were on standby recently at midnight on a Sunday night (in March), even though it was raining and 36 degrees,” Price says. “The potential for ice was there. It normally takes about an hour for the counties to respond and to get them in, loaded, and out on the road. If we don’t already have them here, we have a mess to clean up.”
Tennessee is somewhat of a transition state for winter weather, which causes people to have high expectations of road conditions.
“Shippers expect that we have clear, black roads all the time, even through the snow events,” Price says. “That’s a difficult expectation to manage.”
Though Price runs an older, mixed model Mack fleet, they continue to perform well, even under the harshest conditions, he says.
“We never wear trucks out,” Price says. “We always age them out.”
He attributes the fleet’s health to a robust preventive maintenance program and great service and support from his local dealer, Worldwide Equipment.
“The dealer network is a benefit to the Mack brand,” Price says. “Product support for older equipment is better with Mack than other brands. We have so many different years and different makes and models that it’s paramount for us to have a good relationship and good support from our dealer.”
Customer service after the sale is critical, says Scott Pekar, TDOT’s salesman at Worldwide Equipment in Lexington, Ky. Together, he and TDOT have worked to create the durability and performance specs they need, along with focusing on safety through improved visibility and braking systems.
Benjamin Price, regional operations engineer at the Tennessee Department of Transportation talks with Chris Branham, TDOT Operations Technician. The road crews depend on their Mack fleet for heavy-duty work, especially during the winter, when roads must constantly be kept clear of snow and ice.
“What we’ve tried to do is give them quality equipment along with support after the sale,” Pekar says. “Worldwide is committed to parts and service support and is willing to go the extra mile. We team with TDOT and that team approach has worked out well for us.”
TDOT is working with Pekar to update to a more uniform fleet, reaping the benefits of improved technology and simpler maintenance.
Their newest Granite models are equipped with 13-liter Mack MP® engines with 425 hp and 1,850 lb.-ft. of torque. They also have two lift axles for added payload capacity. The new trucks are not only more effective, but they bring unexpected benefits as well. When it comes to plowing, the trucks are equipped with underbody scrapers and spreaders, as well as plows.
“Our other trucks were adequate in getting the job done, but now, with the higher horsepower engines, our drivers feel like the trucks aren’t having to work as hard,” Price says. “Driver perception is the trucks are doing better and we’ve seen a big increase in drivers taking better care of their trucks. If they feel like we’ve gotten them a good truck, they are more likely to take care of it.”
Price considers his Macks to be a worthy premium product compared to other manufacturers.
“Our crews need to be able to work, and well before I was even working on equipment specs, the precedent had been set that our heavy-duty truck fleet would be somewhat of a premium,” Price says. “We knew we would have these trucks longer than 12-15 years. We were predicting we would have them about 20 years, and in our application, we knew we had to buy a brand that would be supportive 20 years down the road. It was a big, big deal that Mack was really receptive to meeting our RBM (resistance bending moment — a measure of frame rail strength and stiffness) spec with our single frame rail. Double frames may be effective in strength, but they are terrible with corrosion (from plowing operations). Also, it was easy to get double reduction gearing, and we feel like that helps in the longevity of the drivetrain, spreading the load over two gear sets instead of one.”
“Double reduction is standard on Mack,” Pekar says. “The Mack rear axle is legendary in the industry for being tough and durable. Some people say it’s overkill, but it requires less maintenance over time.”
Drivers of the newer trucks also enjoy the benefits of better ergonomics and comfort, from power windows and doors to air conditioning.
Price says he plans to stay with the Mack brand, because it has been a faithful performer for so many years.
“We take brand-new trucks and put them in the most corrosive environment you can,” he adds. “We know we’re going to have these trucks a long time.”
Though he is not currently using the mDRIVE™ automated transmission, he was impressed with a recent demonstration, which involved stopping an unloaded truck on a steeply graded gravel incline at the Mack Customer Center.
“The worst problem we’ve had in similar situations in the past is the trucks will ‘bunny hop,’” Price says. “It’s not a big issue if you’re loaded, but if you’re unloaded and back down into a hole, then dump and try to pull out, you’re just bunny hopping, and if the driver doesn’t let off, then it will break something. That mDRIVE was probably the most impressive I’ve seen, with almost unperceivable wheel slip. I’ve been a staunch supporter of the manual transmission. I didn’t feel the automated transmissions were worth pursuing, but now, the mDRIVE just works.”