Cities struggle to keep up with snowfalls

Equipment sales are up, while snow-removal budgets are depleted. Can technology help?

One of the first known snow-removal devices - a plow attached to a horse-drawn cart - came into use in Milwaukee in 1862.

But nearly 150 years later, America is still grappling with how to get rid of its white stuff.

As a pair of winter storms barreled through much of the eastern half of the United States this week, cities and towns scrambled to defeat the snow and sleet that closed highways, busted budgets, and shut down government offices and schools from Minnesota to South Carolina. The storm was blamed for at least 44 traffic deaths by Tuesday morning.

The heaviest snowfall reported Monday was 24.8 inches in Duluth, Minn., but highways were glazed over as far south as Georgia. In Michigan, authorities warned motorists to stay off the road Tuesday, and 10 or more inches of snow was expected in the Northeast.

And, not unlike their 19th-century Wisconsin counterparts, Americans fought for an edge over Mother Nature's wintry wrath. Take Eric DiBartolo.

As snowplowers in New Jersey braced for ice and heavy snowfall Monday night, the highway superintendent had long finished spraying roads with saltwater solution just north, in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. - yes, before a single snowflake fell.

It's a de-icing system - spraying streets before snow falls, to avoid later having to dump salt granules - that Mr. DiBartolo learned of on a trip to Washington State six years ago. "It's cheaper and more efficient," says the self-proclaimed "motorhead," who tinkers with old street rods in his spare time.

Yet as technology has advanced in snow removal, other challenges, such as where to put the snow, have risen. "Historically there weren't so many cars on the street," says Richard Armstrong, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. "In cities you have to pick at the snow, and be careful."

Snow-removal crews have experimented with upgrading fleets to include GPS tracking systems. Others have dabbled with using snowplow simulators to train workers. But in many towns and cities across the country, as officials find new ways to tackle the weather, they are also battling their budgets.

Jon Carlisle, spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation and Construction, says the state has spent $34 million in snow and ice removal to date, double the $15 million budget.

Officials in Howard County, Md., were already in the red - by $100,000 - before Monday's storm, which dumped seven inches of snow on the greater Washington area, says Jim Irvin, director of Howard County's Department of Public Works.

Where municipalities are not responsible for snow removal, residents and their snow shovels are. Retail sales of equipment have spiked this winter. Wal-Mart doesn't release specific figures, but spokeswoman Danette Thompson says stores along the northern East Coast are doing "very well" selling snow-removal devices this year, she says. "In other areas of the country, we're still waiting for the weather to hit."

At Fisher Engineering, which manufacturers snowplows, sand, and salt, sales have increased by 20 to 30 percent, says Ray Littlefield, senior site manager in Rockland, Maine. But that's not to say he's overjoyed. "I personally don't like the darn stuff," Mr. Littlefield says. "It can snow everywhere else, just not where I am."

While demand has soared across the East, the West has been left without enough supply. In Salt Lake City, Utah, hardware store Sugarhouse Mower ran out of its 80-strong stock of snowblowers the day after Christmas, says owner Blair Newman. "We have no more to sell. There isn't anymore left."

OtherS took a longer-term view. "It's been bad in New England for the last few years. But if it's warmer here, it's snowier in someplace like the Rockies," says Ron Wentworth, co-owner of Creative Services of New England, which does printing on ice scrapers. "In the end, it all averages out."

But cold weather has continued to grip the Northeast. Coast Guard cutters have been busy breaking ice in the shipping lanes of Boston Harbor this week. Delta Airlines delayed or canceled some 300 flights Monday out of Atlanta because of weather in the Midwest and East.

Back in Yorktown Heights, DiBartolo says his constituents are happy with the way he and his fleet of 23 spray trucks de-ice their 200 miles of roadway. Now he wants to bring the idea to the rest of the East Coast as a consultant, he says. His first target: Boston's Logan Airport.

But in the end, many realize that there's only so much that trucks and plows can accomplish. "There's isn't much you can do about it," says Mr. Irvin from Maryland. "You just deal with it."

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