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Published: Tuesday, 2/10/2009

Less snow hoped for in second half of winter

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

While area groundhogs may have predicted a normal-length winter instead of an early-arriving spring, area road maintenance officials hope that at the very least, winter's second half won't be as rough as its first.

And as far as street-agency leaders such as Perrysburg's Jon Eckel and Oregon's Paul Roman are concerned, December, with its ice storms and light, but frequent, snowfalls was worse than January was. That's because weather like December's requires far more use of de-icing salt, a commodity in tight supply and high in price.

"The ice storms consume more [salt] than 10 inches of snow did," Mr. Eckel said last week. "With an ice storm, you've got to keep applying salt constantly."

"We're just hoping for the best" for the rest of the winter after using a little more than half of Oregon's salt supply so far, Mr. Roman said, adding, "We have cut down on our use."

If supplies do run low, he said, Oregon could face paying more than $100 per ton, or triple the price from 2007, to get any more from a Cleveland-area supplier that would be the city's "last resort" if the Ohio Department of Transportation or Lucas County don't have any surplus salt available from their own supplies.

Joe Camp, Maumee's commissioner of public service, said he was quoted $140 per ton from a source he wouldn't identify, because if it comes to that, he doesn't want competition for the supply. So far, he said, Maumee has used about 2,400 tons of the 3,450 tons it had on hand in November, which in turn was about 2,000 tons less than the city wanted.

"If push comes to shove, I have no alternative" but to pay top dollar for salt, Mr. Camp said.

Salt prices were high even before the winter began. They approximately doubled last fall compared with a year earlier, from the $30s to the $60s or $70s per ton, as communities scrambled to replenish stockpiles depleted by ice and snow storms last winter.

Many smaller road-maintenance agencies in northwest Ohio couldn't get any bids at all for their supply needs this year, leaving them to plead for help from ODOT or their counties.

Howard Penrod, managing director of the Monroe County Road Commission, said the county has used 80 percent of its 22,000-ton salt target for the winter as of last week, and the commission has spent 50 percent of its overtime budget for the year in just one month.

Salt's high price plus area governments' worsening budget problems prompted many authorities to tighten their standards for spreading salt. Besides curtailing the use of overtime labor to fight winter weather, they reserved salt for major thoroughfares and high-risk locations on other roads, such as intersections and curves.

"We have only been doing the primary streets and the secondary streets that have bus routes," Maumee's Mr. Camp said. "We have not been salting the residential streets at all, or the alleys."

Hugh Thomas, Sylvania Township's administrator, told his township's trustees last week that the township had just begun using a salt-brine applicator truck to pre-treat roads before winter storms.

Spraying brine on the pavement weakens the bond between the surface and any snow or ice that falls afterward, making plows more efficient and reducing the need for salt after plowing. The brine applications prompted some complaints, though, from motorists who followed the brine truck too closely and ended up with a salty film on their windshields, Mr. Thomas said.

Along with continually replenishing its salt shed after each storm, as of last week Sylvania Township still had some salt reserved with its supplier that had not yet been delivered, he said.

"If we get a series of significant snow events, we may have a problem, or if we get a freezing-rain event," Mr. Thomas said.

And in Ottawa Hills, Village Administrator Marc Thompson said street crews had begun using beet extract to stretch salt supplies. Beet extract improves salt's effectiveness at lower temperatures and also weakens snow and ice bonding with pavement.

But all the small storms early in the winter offset Ottawa Hills' salt-conservation efforts, Mr. Thompson said.

"It's a paradox. We've been putting it down lightly, but more often," he said.

Contact David Patch at

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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