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Winter road salt more costly and in shorter supply

ADDISON COUNTY — A dramatic spike in the price of salt has some Addison County public works officials vowing to be a lot more judicious in how the substance is applied to roads this winter.
“People are going to experience roads that are not as clear as they have been in the past,” Middlebury Director of Operations Dan Werner said of the consequences of a 23-percent hike in the price of road salt since last winter. Middlebury and other municipal custumers of Cargill — a primary vendor of the ice thawing substance — saw their price for salt escalate from $58.73 per ton last winter to the current $72.18 per ton.
“The mines never caught up from the demand from last year,” Werner said of the impact of last year’s hard winter on salt. Low supply means higher cost, he explained, and mines are paying workers overtime to replenish reserves, according to Werner.
Middlebury has budgeted for just over 1,400 tons of salt this year (that’s $101,052 at $72.18 per ton). That’s around 300 tons less than the community ended up purchasing during the nasty winter of 2013-2014. As usual, Middlebury piggy-backed its salt request onto the state bid, according to Werner.
“Once that goes through the state bid process, that’s all you’re going to get,” Werner said.
As a result, he said public works crews will apply salt more carefully and primarily near the center line of roads.
“People should have good snow tires,” Werner recommended.
Middlebury has thus far received approximately 88 percent of its salt allowance for this winter.
In Vergennes, city officials budgeted $45,000 for road maintenance this winter. The city spent $41,920 in that category last winter and $35,185 the year before that, according to City Manager Mel Hawley.
The $45,000 budget for this winter was looking pretty comfortable, Hawley noted, until the price of salt surged. He’s still hopeful that $45,000 will cover the city’s needs, but it might come down to the wire, depending on the whims of Mother Nature.
“I think it will be a little tight at $45,000, because of the unit cost (of salt),” Hawley said.
The bottom line is that if this winter drives the need for applying 710 tons of salt to Vergennes’ 14 miles of road — as was the case during last year’s brutal winter — that will result in a cost overrun, according to Hawley.
Peter Bouvier heads up the Bristol Road Department. Bouvier has budgeted the same $48,000 for salt as was budgeted last year to treat the town’s 20 miles of blacktop. But given the price increase, that same $48,000 will buy around 665 tons of the substance instead of the 820 tons the sum yielded last winter.
That said, Bouvier believes Bristol is in “pretty decent shape” to weather this winter with its current salt allowance and reserves. The town has a relatively new salt shed that is able to accommodate almost enough salt to last an entire winter, according to Bouvier.
David Blackmore is the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s district administrator for the Northwest Region, which includes most of Addison County. He acknowledged the spike in salt prices, but believes the state will be able to safely treat all of 1,800 lane road miles in the Northwest Region.
“Right now, all of our salt sheds pretty much statewide are full,” Blackmore said.
Many of those sheds hold 600- to 1,650 tons of salt, according to Blackmore.
Like most municipalities, VTrans officials estimated this winter’s salt needs last spring without knowledge of the price increase. And all of the VTrans districts are expected to again have full salt sheds come May, so that will mean purchasing the substance at the higher price. This will lead to some cost overruns, Blackmore acknowledged.
But he stressed that the increased cost will not affect the VTrans salt application rates.
“We don’t plan on changing our use based on the price of salt,” Blackmore said, adding the VTrans winter credo is “safe roads for safe speeds.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com

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