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A front end loader fills a Washington County tandem truck with road salt Friday morning, March 7, 2014. Washington County started out with 12,000 tons of salt and now has 1,000 tons left. ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS/John Doman

Minnesota winter depleting road salt supplies; cities add sand to mix

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By Bob Shaw

Minnesota’s roads may be going on a low-salt diet.

After a brutal winter, supplies are running so low that many cities are starting to cut their salt use by mixing in sand.

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If March brings another snowstorm or two, salt supplies could run out — and cities will be forced to buy salt that is almost four times more expensive. That and mounting overtime costs are making this winter a contender for yet another record — most expensive.

“It goes from snow, to rain, to water on the road, to freezing catch basins, to potholes … it never ends,” sighed Doug Johnson, operations director for Washington County.

Through January, the Minnesota Department of Transportation poured 178,000 tons of salt on roads — 60 percent more than last winter. Picture it as a stack of 50-pound bags of salt about 550 miles high.

Almost everything that could go wrong weather-wise has gone wrong.

The season’s snowfall of more than 58 inches so far is above average, and the average temperature from December through February was the coldest in 35 years. But the worst problem has been the timing.

Snowplow drivers prefer snow that falls in big, intense storms. That way, they can clear the roads when the snow stops and put down salt to melt what’s left.

This winter instead brought a series of “nuisance events,” consisting of 1 to 3 inches of snow. Each required as much salt as a major blizzard. Also, some of the small storms lasted over consecutive rush hours, making it impossible to keep the roads clear.

Then came the kind of storm that gives snowplow drivers nightmares — on Feb. 21.

“That was with extremely warm temperatures, then heavy wet snow, then cars packing it down in rush hour. It froze like concrete on concrete,” said Kevin Gutknecht, Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman.

Rising costs

The costs are piling up like snow on the interstate.

Washington County pays the state-negotiated rate of $60 a ton for salt. But if it needs more, it will pay open market rates of about $230 a ton, said Wayne Sandberg, the county’s deputy public works director.

The county has used about 11,000 tons so far this season and has only 1,000 tons on hand. “I am concerned about that,” Sandberg said. “We are going to be judicious.”

In Oakdale, salt supplies are holding steady. Public Works Director Brian Bachmeier said the city has stockpiled salt from last season.

But Oakdale’s overtime costs are high, as they are in all cities.

The problem — again — is the timing. “It has snowed pretty much over the weekends and in the middle of the night, so we have more overtime,” said Troy Grossman, Lakeville’s street superintendent.

“The guys are getting sick of it. We haven’t had a full weekend off in I-don’t-know-how-long.”

Sandberg said Washington County normally pays about $60,000 a year for all overtime, summer and winter. But the snow removal overtime alone in 2013 was $84,000. In January and February, Sandberg said, overtime costs were about double the normal amount.

The cold temperatures matter in unexpected ways.

At 15 degrees, Sandberg said, salt starts to lose its effectiveness. At zero, he said, it hardly has any effect at all.

Lakeville’s Grossman relies on a product called ClearLane, a treated salt that’s effective at lower temperatures. But it costs about 20 percent more than salt, he said.

The temperature has another, more subtle effect. In a normal winter, snow will melt steadily, with sunlight and occasional bursts of warm air.

Not this winter.

“Sometimes we have a January thaw, but not this year,” said Burnsville Street Superintendent Dan Tobritzhofer.

That means snow gets piled higher along roadways, blocking the vision of drivers. It requires yet more money, because crews often follow snowplows to widen choked roadways.

In a winter this bad, Tobritzhofer said, other factors start to wear on his patience. His pet peeve is garbage cans in the street.

“We have 22,000 houses, and when we go around stuff, we have to send another piece of equipment back the next day,” he said. He doesn’t want the unplowed patch to freeze and create a bend in a traffic lane that lasts all winter.

Washington County has switched to a 50-50 mix of sand and salt.

Sand can have an effect at any temperature, and it only costs $14 a ton.

But it does not melt ice. And while roadway sand increases traction in the winter, it can be a hazard if it remains on the roads in the summer.

“You have to clean it up,” Sandberg said. “That is a whole new operation.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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