Winter storms taking a toll on local salt and sand budgets

ADDISON COUNTY — While a series of winter storms has made snow days and cases of cabin fever even more common than usual in February, local road crews and highway budgets may have been the hardest hit of all.
Compounding problems for town managers, highway foremen and truck drivers has been a shortage of salt. That shortage, a problem officials said stretches across the northern United States, has meant icier roads, more trips out of town garages for workers, and more headaches for drivers and town officials alike.
Ferrisburgh road foreman John Bull said first and foremost drivers should remember circumstances have limited what highway crews can do: Speeding, tailgating and approaching intersections carelessly are even worse ideas than normal.
“The big thing we want to get out there to everybody is you just have to slow down. It’s not business as usual,” Bull said. “It’s slippery, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The well-publicized salt-shortage is not the only issue. Addison road chief Bryan Nolan said this winter’s constant temperature swings have created problems. For example, he pointed to last week’s Monday-Tuesday storm that started as snow, turned to freezing rain, then rain, and then back to freezing rain before temperatures plummeted.  
“The temperatures have been up and down all winter,” Nolan said last week. “What was slush yesterday is ice today, and in light of the salt situation we can’t deal with it.”
Middlebury public works director Dan Werner said even when trucks have salt to spread, if the weather doesn’t cooperate it can go to waste: Several times this winter rain has washed away salt before it could do its job.
“What makes you go through a lot of salt is five instances of rain that rinses all the salt residue off the road, and you have to start over,” Werner said. “That’s what really chews up the salt budget.”
Unfortunately, solving the salt shortage is not as simple as just substituting sand: Salt is more efficient than sand.
Bull said 600 pounds of salt can treat the same amount of road surface as 2,000 pounds of sand. That difference means trucks must go out two or three times as often, and drivers must work — usually on overtime wages — two or three times as long to accomplish the same task when they use sand instead of salt.
On Friday Bull described Ferrisburgh’s response to the mixed storm early last week.
“Instead of going around two times (with salt), we went around five times,” he said. “If we had not, we probably would have had a two-inch ice pack. It would still be there today.”
Some relief, at least of a temporary nature, from the salt shortage came last week, when the Vermont Agency of Transportation loaned salt to at least 65 Vermont towns, including Leicester, Hancock, Whiting, New Haven, Monkton, Bristol, Ferrisburgh and Panton.
But salt is hard to come by. Leicester road foreman Arlan Pidgeon recently got a load of salt from a company in Fort Ann, N.Y., in addition to the AOT load, but expects that this will be the last time he will be able to tap that supplier.
Managers in Vergennes, Middlebury and Brandon said salt shipments were finally coming through, but at a cost. Vergennes City Manager Renny Perry said the last $474 in his winter materials budget will go toward a $1,400 delivery of salt that costs about $55 a ton and is expected this week.
Perry said his $20,000 overtime line item is already overspent by $4,100, and he will be looking for savings elsewhere in the city budget.
“We try to economize in any account we can,” Perry said. “If the deficit is too large, the largest single line item in public works is paving … and that’s the line item that will get hit.”
Managers of the other larger towns in the area are more optimistic they can weather the storms. Werner said winter road spending in Middlebury is within 3 percent of normal, despite being $6,100 high in overtime costs with six weeks to go in its fiscal year. He said the town saved $11,000 because it could not fill a part-time sidewalk maintenance position, and after an expected salt delivery this week the town will still have $12,000 left in its salt budget.
But things could still change in the next few weeks, Werner said.   
“It’s not over until it’s over. Hopefully we’re budgeting properly,” he said.
Overtime is a central issue in winter road maintenance.
“Even a smaller storm isn’t going to cost us much less than a big one,” Perry said. “They don’t come on regular time. They don’t come between 7 in the morning and 3:30 in the afternoon when the crew is normally here.”
Brandon town manager Keith Arlund said that town has several part-timers who work on its snow-plowing crew, a factor in keeping this year’s winter budget “generally on target.”
“We have three or four spares that work the night shift,” Arlund said. “It helps.”
Bristol town administrator Bill Bryant said so far extra spending has been offset because the town has spent only about half of its $45,000 salt budget. 
“The budget is actually in decent shape because we can’t get the product we need,” Bryant said.     
Bull said the same applies to Ferrisburgh.
“If we had our usual salt supply, we’d go over the salt budget this year,” Bull said. 
But the other problems outweigh Ferrisburgh’s savings in salt, Bull said, and he expects summer road work may have to take a hit this year.
“Our overtime is really getting hammered,” he said, and added to that the factors of wear and tear on trucks and equipment, fuel costs and sand.
Nolan faces a different problem in Addison, which operates on a calendar year plan. He is already spending from a budget that faces voter approval on Town Meeting Day, and he hopes his funds won’t be gone by then.
“If we get as much winter this year from Oct. 31 to Dec. 31, we’re screwed,” Nolan said. “I could literally use my budget this year from Jan. 1 to April 1, the way things are going. I’m hoping for no winter this fall.”
The flip side of the extra cost to the town of the overtime is the toll it takes on its workers. Managers were unanimous in their praise of the work their crews do, often on short rest.
“The guys who go out and do this kind of work, they really deserve some credit,” Bryant said. “There’s a lot of people out there working on those roads. These guys can run for seven weeks sometimes without a whole day off.”
Perry has served as a manager or mayor of several other New England towns, and said he has never seen better work, even though Vergennes has only five employees who not only plow, but also clean up downtown for its business community afterward.
“I get compliments about the work they do, and I have to say I agree,” Perry said. “This is the fourth city I’ve had road crews, and they do a fabulous job.”
 Arlund and Bryant said workers at times have not been able to get to sidewalks right away, but that citizens have for the most part reacted with calm, possibly because of media attention paid to the salt shortage and to the difficulty workers have had keeping up with the series of storms.
“They seemed to understand if (workers) are not there, there has to be a good reason,” Bryant said. “We do appreciate people’s patience, because the guys are putting in the hours.” 
Although most say they accept the conditions, they would also welcome better weather.
“I’d just as soon not see another snow storm from here on in,” Perry said.
In the meantime, Nolan said he hopes drivers will continue to accept less-than-perfect conditions. 
“We’re telling everybody, ‘Welcome to the good old days,’” Nolan said. “This is what it used to be like.”

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