Commonwealth Journal

February 3, 2014

Clearing streets is 'snow' joke for city

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

There’s no business like snow business.
That’s never truer than when working for a road department, and this winter, as the weather outside has been frightful, business has been good — or at least busy.
Local agencies have spent a lot of time on local thoroughfares cleaning off the snow and salting them so they’re safe to drive — and have spent a lot of money as well.
“We’ve been extremely busy,” said David Hargis, street foreman for the City of Somerset. “My guys have stepped up and performed beautifully. We’ve been able to keep the streets clean, and keep transportation moving. I’m very proud of my guys.”
The total cost of keeping roads clear is high. Hargis noted that about $23,700 has been spent this winter on this task, above and beyond normal maintenance and personnel costs. That includes man hours, fuel costs, salt, and all other related factors.
Specifically, salt is in high demand. Hargis said that the city’s street department has used about 75 tons of salt — which is distributed on roads to decrease slickness in snowy and icy weather — since January 1. That has cost around $7,500.
Making the situation pricier is the fact that most of the U.S. has undergone a wicked winter as well, with even larger storms than Somerset has gotten further north in Kentucky, as well as in the midwestern and east coast states surrounding the Commonwealth. 
“Salt has been very difficult to find over the last month,” said Hargis. “Everybody all over the nation has been looking for it.”
When demand suddenly outpaces supply, basic economics dictates that prices will go up — and that’s exactly what has happened.
“(The cost of road salt) has almost doubled what it was back in the fall, per ton,” said Hargis. “It’s about $160 a ton right now.”
The City of Somerset trucks cover about 392 streets within the city limits.
Hargis is hopeful there isn’t much polar immersion left for Somerset, which has seen an abnormally snowy January so far, but isn’t counting on being finished with it just yet.
“We’ve been ready for it to be done since December,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the way it’s been. They’re calling for some more weather possibly this weekend. But we’ll just deal with it as it comes. We’ve been able to stay on top of it each time, so we don’t anticipate this to be any different.”
As reported in Sunday’s Commonwealth Journal, the county government road department is shipping in salt from New Mexico to help boost a dwindling supply locally, spending about $45,000 to help cover Pulaski’s 1,800 miles of roadways. The county has come close to exhausting the 175 tons of salt it had stored when winter began.
At least they’re getting help from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, District 8 crews. Amber Hale, the agency’s information officer, said that “everything is going good,” and that, in fact, the season hasn’t been as bad as they expected.
“We were ready for (a bad winter); we talked in the fall about how we were due for a bigger event this year,” she said. “We’ve not got what we thought we were going to get.”
According to Hale, “Somerset didn’t get as much” in Monday’s snowfall as some neighboring counties. “Rockcastle, Casey, and Lincoln Counties, the northern parts, they got a couple of inches.”
Somerset, meanwhile, saw little more than a dusting in most places. That said, weather forecasts call for more winter activity later this week and possibly this weekend, though it’s hard to tell right now exactly how much snow Pulaski County might end up seeing.
The Transportation Cabinet crews cover about 1,000 miles of roadway in Pulaski County, including on U.S. 27, and 5,200 miles total in the 10-county district they cover.
Since the first snow fall of the season, the Cabinet has used a total of 15,611 tons of salt throughout the ten county district, at an average cost per ton of $65. A single ton will treat eight lane miles, said Hale.
Across Kentucky, the cost of removing snow and ice has hit about $27 million in total, according to information from the Associated Press on Monday. The figure includes labor, equipment, materials and contractors.
According to the AP, the Transportation cabinet says its nearly 2,000 maintenance crew employees have worked to keep more than 60,000 lane miles of roads open this winter, and have spread more than 220,000 tons of salt, compared to 85,000 tons at this time last year during a relatively mild winter. The Cabinet says more than 150,000 tons of salt remain on hand.
“We’ve kept a good supply; we’ve not even gotten low at any point,” said Hale of District 8. “We’ve kept a full amount on hand for each snow event we’ve had. We’ve got more coming in this week, and orders coming in all through the month and most of March.”