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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — In Michigan’s way-up-north Keweenaw Peninsula, where 200 inches of snow in a single season elicits barely a shrug, officials know there’s nothing in the budget more important than keeping the roads passable.
Yet even they have been caught short this merciless winter. Houghton County planned to spend around $2.1 million for plowing, salting and related maintenance, which experience suggested would be plenty, but has overshot it by $500,000 and counting.
State and local governments across a huge swath of the nation, from the Great Plains to the Upper Midwest and the Deep South to New England, are experiencing sticker shock after one of the coldest, snowiest, iciest winters in memory. Many have spent two or three times as much as they budgeted for clearing roads. More bad weather could send costs higher.
Even as today's official arrival of spring presages warmer weather, it’s clear that winter’s bitter aftertaste will linger much longer as officials compensate for untold millions in unexpected spending that includes patching a rash of potholes. In some states, legislatures are already preparing emergency appropriations. Elsewhere, road agencies are delaying repaving projects, cutting back on roadside mowing and summer hires, dipping into rainy-day funds and making do with battered equipment instead of buying more.
“It’ll have a considerable impact on cities and their fiscal health,” said James Brooks of the National League of Cities. “Just as they’re emerging from the depths of the great recession, they got whacked very hard by this intemperate winter.”
Its sheer ferocity caught nearly everyone by surprise, including those for whom dealing with cold and snow is second nature.
“This is a very unique winter, even talking with some of the old timers who have been here longer than I have,” said Houghton County highway engineer Kevin Harju, a resident of the Lake Superior community since 1976. “You can get a lot of snow or you can get extremely low temperatures, but not both — except this year.”
Virginia budgeted $157 million for snow removal and may exceed it by $150 million — probably the most the state has ever spent for the purpose. “The bills are still coming in,” spokeswoman Tamara Rollinson said.
Montgomery County, Md., in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, has spent three times its budgeted amount. Illinois is 200 percent over its three-year average, and its crews have spread almost double the usual volume of salt — a mixed blessing, since it corrodes roads and bridges as it melts the snow. North Carolina planned for $40 million and has spent $62 million. Arkansas, where ice is often a bigger problem than snow, has spent a record $18 million, three times its seasonal average.
Ernie Winters, highway commissioner in Winnebago County, Wis., thought things were tough in 2013 when his department blew through its winter maintenance budget by April. But now he’s over budget again — by an even bigger margin.
“Last winter was a peach compared to this one,” he lamented.
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Officials are scrambling to make up for the massive cost overruns. Atlanta, pummeled by ice storms that created epic traffic jams, is dipping into a rainy-day fund to cover $13.5 million in cleanup costs. In Michigan, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, legislators have approved special appropriations that will help but won’t pay for everything.
The League of Wisconsin Municipalities is lobbying its lawmakers for relief. “This is like being hit by a tornado or flooding, although we haven’t had any loss of life and the pictures aren’t quite as dramatic,” Executive Director Dan Thompson said.
Transportation agencies insist they won’t neglect filling potholes, a top priority because they’re a safety hazard and hugely expensive. The typical U.S. vehicle owner spends an extra $335 a year on repairs caused by rough roads, while in large cities the average is $746, says Tony Dorsey of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
And by all indications this year’s crop of potholes will be one of the most bountiful ever. In Michigan, where frost lines extend up to 80 inches below ground, Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle recently warned legislators to brace for “one of the biggest pavement breakouts we’ve ever seen in our lifetime.”
In many places, cutbacks will be made on maintenance planned for spring and summer: replacing worn-out sections of pavement; filling cracks with tar; restriping lane markers. It’s not sexy, but officials say the basic upkeep prevents deterioration that requires even costlier fixes in the future.
“Your road shoulders are crumbling on the edges and people think, ‘So what?’” said Randy Ort of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. “...But having the shoulder in good condition keeps moisture off the travel lanes, which helps keep potholes from occurring. So it’s very important.”
In Michigan’s Houghton County, highway engineer Harju has been waiting for an opportunity to repave and improve drainage on a road that provides access to Lake Superior and a park that’s important for tourism. The federal government would pick up most of the tab, but 20 percent must be paid locally.
The project is “hanging in the balance because our matching funds are being spent on snow removal,” Harju said, adding that funding is so short that some roads may have to be converted to gravel.
Equipment purchases are another likely casualty.
Many of the state’s 83 counties are equally desperate to replace aging graders and plow trucks, said Denise Donahue of the County Road Association of Michigan. “We’re starting to see an unraveling of our road infrastructure,” she said.
Bethlehem, Pa., will delay a park upgrade and a downtown streetscape project, public works director Mike Alkhal said. The city has no choice after more than doubling its usual winter maintenance spending.
“It was practically around the clock for days and days and weeks and weeks,” Alkhal said, referring to the road crews’ overtime.
In many cities and counties, officials say it’s too early to know what will be sacrificed, as winter’s toll is still being tallied. And the despised polar vortex could always stir up more trouble on its way out.
“We’re expecting a couple more storms,” said Bruce Stelzner, highway commissioner in Chippewa County, Wis., “which will dig our hole a little deeper.”a, Mont.