Melting road budgets
Chicago’s former Mayor Michael Bilandic learned the hard way how important it is to clear snow and ice from roadways. Blamed for unplowed roads after a blizzard hit the city in 1979, Bilandic was blown out of office at the next election.
Cook County, Ill.’s winter was mild this year, but, even so, managing the roads in the sprawling area is not cheap. The county purchased 50,000 tons of salt for about $1.7 million, and, as of last month, it had used 34,000 tons.
Labor takes another chunk from the county’s snow removal budget — about $3.6 million, according to Ronald Youngblood, assistant superintendent of highways for Cook County. The county saves some money by handing out comp time to its 240 employees who work extra hours plowing snow.
As a preventive measure, the county applies a brine salt solution to its roads before a big storm hits, hoping to keep bridges damp instead of icy when precipitation hits and temperatures drop. “It buys us time,” Youngblood says. “It’s been a mild winter because we have not been hit by back-to-back storms.”
Budgeting for snow removal can be a slippery slope, local officials say. If the season brings back-to-back monster winter storms, budgets melt away and less money is left in the spring and summer for road-repair projects and new equipment.
The message learned from Mayor Bilandic’s snow clearing fiasco apparently has not reached Oak Ridge, Tenn., yet. The city council slashed its snow removal budget from $80,000 in 2003 to $20,000 in 2004. “It became a very hot topic of community conversation,” says Gary Cinder, public works director. “When the first snowflake hit, the TV stations had their cameras in our faces, asking, ‘What are you gonna do?’”
“Last year was a really bad budget year, and significant cuts had to be made,” Cinder says. “Council elected to eliminate snow and ice removal activities from smaller, shorter streets, leaving us just enough to handle higher traffic streets. The neighborhood streets just weren’t going to be touched.”
Fortunately, snowfall was fairly mild in the Oak Ridge area this winter. “After the snow hit, the temperature rose above freezing and saved us time and money,” Cinder says.
Now, as decision-making on the 2005 budget nears, Cinder predicts the official snow removal budget will remain at $20,000, but a pool of money will be made available from a general road repair fund. “We’ll take the gamble off the table,” he says.
Gas hike helps
In Ohio, 88 counties are responsible for clearing 28,000 miles of road during the winter. Each county engineer works from a budget funded by license plate fees and gasoline taxes. The money is earmarked for roads and bridges and cannot be used for other purposes, says Glenn Sprowls, executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio in Columbus, Ohio.
The engineers, who are elected officials, are pleased with a recent 6-cent hike in a gasoline tax — which is being phased in 2-cent increments culminating in a 24-cents-per-gallon tax — that goes directly into a state road fund that is divvied up among the counties. “There’s a friendly war with the commissioners about it,” Sprowls says.
The extra money will come in handy in counties that see a lot of snow. For example, on the east side of Lake Erie, in Geauga County, “our average snowfall is somewhere near 120 inches,” says County Engineer Robert Phillips. The county sometimes sees snow fall before Halloween and occasionally in April.
For the first time ever, the county “cracked the $1 million mark,” in annual snow-removal spending, Phillips says. “This winter was as bad as it’s ever been. On top of that, that is more than we spent in 2001 and 2002 combined,” he says. Normally, the county spends about $750,000 a year on snow removal, and “if we get away with spending half a million, that’s good,” he notes. The total road budget is about $4.5 million annually.
Phillips says he saw a slight increase in the price of salt (the county normally buys about 9,000 tons a year, but it purchased 14,000 tons last year) and paid snowplow drivers time-and-half pay because “it snowed every holiday — New Year’s, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day.” The county’s average hourly wage for snowplow drivers runs between $15.25 to $16.45 per hour. The county has 17 trucks and sends drivers out to plow 13 routes along 230 miles of two-lane roads.
To save money this year, the county used cinders, a byproduct of blast furnaces, rather than salt on its rural roads. The county also saves money by not prewetting roads before a storm hits. “[Prewetting] adds a lot to [snow removal] cost,” Phillips says. “Our issue usually has more to do with traction than with trying to melt the snow. We stick with timing, plowing and salting the roads before school starts.”
Instead of purchasing cinders to use on rural roads, Auglaize County, Ohio, County Engineer Doug Reinhart saved money this winter by mixing #9 limestone, at $5 a ton, with salt at $38 a ton. “It’s a one-to-one mixture. It gives you traction,” he says.
The county had several ice storms this year and put down five applications of salt totaling 2,800 tons, which is the same as the previous winter. “Any more than that would be a real budget-buster,” Reinhart says. He reports that he spends about 5 percent of his $4.1 million road budget on snow and ice removal.
Small cuts, large needs
While Kansas City, Mo.’s reduction in its snow removal budget from $1.9 million to $1.6 million was not as severe as Oak Ridge’s, the city went over budget because of an extreme winter. The shortfall drove Greg Bolon, assistant division engineer for the Public Works Department, Street and Traffic Division, to dip into a contingency fund to spend another $750,000.
The city experienced an average amount of snow — about 20 inches — but saw more than its share of rain, freezing rain and ice. “We had 15 to 20 degrees for a couple of days, and that’s not normal for us,” Bolon says. “This year, it seemed like every other storm we had was extreme cold.”
Kansas City battled icy streets with a mix of salt and calcium chloride, which freezes at minus 30 degrees. It also pretreats its roads with salt brine. This winter, the city used between 25,000 tons to 30,000 tons of salt on its roads — about 5,000 more tons than usual.
Labor is the city’s biggest snow removal cost. “You’re paying your guys for 12-hour shifts, and you get prolonged events of seven and eight days, and they’re getting double-time by the seventh day,” Bolon says. “Our equipment is running hard, too. Hopefully the equipment holds up, but if it doesn’t, you’re replacing blades and parts.”
The city uses about 140 trucks, some coming from the city’s Parks and Recreation and Water departments, to clear 5,900 lane miles. “We’re cheering on spring as much as we can,” Bolon says.
In tiny Wolf Point, Mont., population 2,800, it was the worst winter Rick Isle has ever seen. Isle, the city’s public works director, also is a Wolf Point native. “We’ve had 59 inches of snow,” he says. “Our first snow was October 27, and it never left.”
Isle, who is 51, says that the city was hit with a double whammy this winter. “This is the first time I’ve seen it 30 below and snowing all at the same time,” he says. “Usually when it gets that cold it doesn’t snow. Some days, it would be 50-mile-per-hour winds and snowing.”
The city has spent approximately $50,000 on snow removal this winter. Only about $2,000 was budgeted to clear roadways at the airport. “That was gone the first week [following the first snow],” Isle says. “We quit budgeting for snow removal five or six years ago. We just put it in the street maintenance budget. I don’t think we even plowed last year.”
The snow removal cost this winter “has been really hard on us,” he says. “Every penny we’ve spent since October has gone for snow removal.” Isle says the city has spent more this year removing snow from roads than in the last six years combined. “For the month of January alone, our fuel bill was $2,500.
Even though Wolf Point received help from surrounding jurisdictions to plow the roads, it still had to hire people to help. Hoping to receive federal funding from the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Emergency Management Agency, the city has declared its situation a disaster.
While some luckier communities may have been repairing roads last month after a long winter, many local governments in the Midwest and Northeast were continuing their seasonal battle to clear snowy and icy roads. In Wisconsin, where road maintenance funding was cut by the state by 15 to 20 percent last year, a fresh three-inch snow blanketed much of the state on St. Patrick’s Day. “We probably have 16 to 20 inches of snow on the ground right now in Boyceville, Wis.,” says Dan Fedderly, administrative coordinator for the Wisconsin County Highway Association.
Because of budget cuts, Fedderly says Wisconsin counties will have to shift around some funds to pay for snow removal. “From March 5 to about the end of the month, we’ve had snowplows out every day across much of the state. We not only got the snow, but we spent [all the counties’ funds],” he says. When asked how counties were going to provide optimum snow-removal service with budget cuts, Fedderly says that the governor and state legislators told the counties, “you’re gonna plow some how, some way.”
Mary Ann Barton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.