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Previous winter, current shortage blamed for spike in rock salt cost

Previous winter, current shortage blamed for spike in rock salt cost

Like the rest of New York, local highway departments are experiencing sticker shock when purchasing
Previous winter, current shortage blamed for spike in rock salt cost
Glenville Commissioner of Public Works Thomas Coppola, sits on mounds of road salt at the Vley Road facility Thursday, November 13, 2014.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Like the rest of New York, local highway departments are experiencing sticker shock when purchasing road salt for the winter season — a 30-percent increase over 2013-14.

The negotiated statewide price this year has risen to $57.87 a ton, up from $44.55 a ton. There are also variables in the price for localities based on geography, time of year and amount of rock salt used.

For municipalities such as Glenville, for example, that could mean an additional $60,000 or more for treating winter roads if it purchases the same tonnage as last season. Schenectady County added $70,000

to its road salt budget Wednesday night to compensate for the spike.

Last winter’s above-average snowfall across the state and a rock salt shortage is to blame for the spike, officials said.

“The major reason comes down to supply and demand,” said Beau Duffy, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, which negotiates a price on behalf of municipalities. “The salt mines are working basically 24/7, and the municipalities are ordering more based on last winter.”

After two relatively mild winters for snow, 23.3 inches in 2011-12 and 51.4 inches in 2012-13, the Capital Region was pummeled with 73.5 inches last season, the third-highest total in a decade. The snow, along with frigid temperatures that contributed to icy conditions requiring road treatment, led to a run on salt and a spike in prices this season.

Many municipalities budgeted for at least some of the rock salt blow. In Galway, the town added 13 percent to its 2015 budget for treating roads. The town mixes salt and sand to treat roads.

“We hope we don’t have to use it,” Galway town Supervisor Paul Lent said. “We hope Mother Nature is on our side.”

That’s what a lot of government officials are saying after the 30-percent spike.

“Hopefully winter will be 31 percent milder,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said. “Let me dream.”

McCarthy said the city did budget for some of the price increase and can manage some of the added cost. In Glenville, town Supervisor Chris Koetzle said the town still has a stockpile left over from last season, which mitigates some of the impact the price hike will have this winter.

“We have salt to last six sizable storms, but we are watching it closely and having discussions about what changes we would have to make to the budget,” he said. “We are thinking we have to make some adjustments.”

Glenville Public Works Commissioner and Highway Superintendent Tom Coppola was more blunt: “The second half is going to kill us.”

Lent agreed the increase will affect municipalities, depending on when the salt has to be used. Governmental agencies have less wiggle room to make up for shortfalls if, say, a monster storm hits in late November or December, at the end of a budget year.

“There isn’t a big pool to get through an unexpected bump,” Lent said.

According to the National Weather Service, the Albany region normally receives 59.1 inches of snow per winter season. But seasons can vary wildly, from the low of 13.8 inches in 1912-13 (the region had nearly 95 inches dumped on it three years later) to the record 112.5 inches of 1970-71. That was in the middle of a five-year stretch in which at least 63 inches of snow fell each winter.

“Each season, there are different parameters that go into the (snowfall) numbers,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Vasil Koleci. These factors include weather patterns and cold weather keeping out warmer, storm-inducing weather.

Lent, McCarthy and others said local officials look at three- to five-year snow cycles in figuring out how much to budget for snow removal and treating roads. That makes sense — except it doesn’t work that way, according to the weather service.

“One year doesn’t mean anything to the following year,” Koleci said. “It’s not like a perfect model where you can say what happened this year will extrapolate to next year. Anything can happen.”

And even total snowfall is not the final barometer on costs for governmental agencies; it’s the number of storms and weather events that go a long way toward dictating expenditures. Four six-inch storms are more costly to treat and clear than one two-footer.

“If you get six inches or 20 inches, you are going the same times around,” Saratoga County Public Works Commissioner Keith Manz said.

Fulton County Superintendent of Highway and Facilities Mark Yost said there are cost savings to be found in road treatment, such as through better monitoring, conservation and distribution of salt. But the price is what it is, and this is the Northeast.

“There is not a lot we can do about it,” he said. “We never know what the winter has in store for us. Every winter, every single storm, is different.”

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