Winter's full fury arrived late in much of the country, but once it did it was relentless, quickly exhausting snow removal budgets and pushing the resources of state transportation agencies to their limit as they fought to keep highways safe and passable, according to a first-of-its-kind survey.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said 23 states reported combined spending of more than $1 billion on winter maintenance operations and 8 million work hours plowing or treating state roads from October to March.
The states that responded to Monday's survey, obtained in advance by The Associated Press, also went through 6 million tons of salt and other huge quantities of brine and liquid deicing chemicals. One state reported using 216,000 gallons of beet juice, which can help salt stick to road surfaces.
"This winter the storms just came one on top of the other and there wasn't time in between to replenish your salt piles and give your folks some time off," said Rick Nelson, coordinator of the association's Snow and Ice Cooperative Program.
In Indiana, K-Tech Specialty Coatings has been distributing “Beet Heet,” a sugar beet molasses-based product that increases rock salt’s ice melting capacity when the two are mixed. The mixture helps rock salt melt ice below its 15-degree limit, according to Beet Heet distributors, and helps municipalities melt larger amounts of ice and clean up snow more quickly. It is also sticky, preventing salt rocks from bouncing off of the road as cars drive past.
This year about 175 municipal agencies, mostly in the Midwest, are using the product. Butler County in Pennsylvania has been experimenting with the solution as part of a department or transportation research project into de-icing option, a PennDot official told TIME.
A single season snowfall record was broken in Boston, with virtually all the 110 inches coming in a six-week stretch from late January to early March when temperatures rarely rose above freezing.
"In January, we were talking about what we were going to do with the surplus snow and ice funds," recalled Thomas Tinlin, Massachusetts' highway administrator. The Department of Transportation wound up spending $154 million on winter maintenance, well above its $107 million annual budget. Additional money was appropriated to assure the state's private snowplow contractors got paid.
Massachusetts used 600,000 tons of salt and 1.6 million gallons of liquid deicer. Crews removed 17.5 billion cubic feet of snow from state roadways, equivalent to 40 times the volume of dirt excavated during the massive Boston highway project known as the Big Dig, state officials noted.
Pennsylvania, which budgeted $203 million for winter maintenance based on a five-year average of previous expenditures, spent $272 million to keep traffic flowing on the state's 40,000 miles of roadway, according to Erin Waters-Trasatt, a transportation spokeswoman.
Pennsylvania also was among several states that sent crews and equipment to help out in Massachusetts, she said.
It wasn't just the typical northern snow belt states that felt winter's wrath.
"Normally we don't budget for ice and snow because we don't get it that often," said Melinda McGrath, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation. But recent winters have brought several dangerous ice storms to the south, and this year Mississippi spent $3.1 million, used 887 tons of salt and devoted 64,704 work hours to keep state roads safe.
An even larger and longer-term expense, McGrath said, are potholes. It's a universal headache for motorists and highway officials as freezing and melting cycles cause pavement to expand, then crack. Maryland was among several other states reporting a large increase in potholes this spring.
The actual taxpayer cost of winter road maintenance was much higher than measured by the survey. Not all states responded and the expenses incurred by municipalities for plowing local roads were seen as comparable to state governments.
Unlike the previous winter, AASHTO said there were no serious shortages of salt this year.
When lawmakers and the general public consider transportation funding, winter maintenance needs can often be overlooked said Bud Wright, the group's executive director.
"When we think about funding transportation, we need to consider the total amount needed to keep people and goods moving throughout the entire year," he said.
States are prohibited from using federal highway funds for snow and ice removal, but some sought federal disaster assistance to offset costs. President Barack Obama approved disaster declarations for Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut for a January blizzard, making those states eligible for 75 percent reimbursement. But a broader request from Massachusetts to consider all the major storms a cumulative disaster was denied.
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