U.S. Cities Stagger Under Cost of Clearing Record Snowfalls

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WATCH Snow Falls in 49 States

From Nevada to New York, already-wobbly city budgets are being walloped by the heavy cost of shoveling out from under record snowfalls.

A mid-December howler dropped 17.1 inches on St. Paul—the most in almost 20 years. The city spread 4,000 tons of salt on 800 miles of streets, added staff and paid overtime. Result?

The city's public works budget has been snowed under by $1 million more than it had budgeted for snow removal.

The figure, says Deputy Mayor Margaret Kelly, likely will rise to $1.3 million. To pay it, she said, the city will have to dip into a fund used to patch potholes, maintain alleys and cut city grass.

The prospect that the fund could be depleted, she says, makes the rest of winter "challenging."

Things are worse in Minneapolis, which has exceeded its snow budget by $3 million. It, too, plans to dip into reserve funds to pay the cost.

In Missouri, tight budgets mean snow plow crews are being told to make roads "passable," not necessarily clear.

New York City, hit hard by a late December blizzard, is still recovering and still paying. A spokesman for the mayor's office says that while not all costs have yet been tallied, the final snow bill should come in at around $38 million.

Given that the city's budget gap next year is forecast to be $2.4 billion, those millions will be missed.

New Technology Helps Cities Save Money

New York and other cities, however, are learning how to get more from their snow-fighting dollar by using new technology.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is adding GPS devices to some of his city's 1,700 plows, which will allow department of sanitation managers not only to track the exact location of each plow but to enjoy direct and instantaneous communication with drivers, directing them to streets most in need of plowing.

In Illinois, which faces a budget crisis so severe that lawmakers have approved a bill raising the state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent, Chicago's department of sanitation uses GPS already, as part of a comprehensive effort to make more efficient use of the city's resources.

Those include 320 big plows and 27 smaller ones. Sanitation managers use pole- and ground-mounted sensors to constantly monitor weather and road conditions.

They also can access a network of more than 1,000 television cameras—including traffic, police surveillance and red light cameras--to monitor street conditions and make sure plows are where they're supposed to be.

Department spokesman Matt Smith says one plow driver was surprised to get a call from headquarters telling him he was driving incorrectly, with his plow lowered.

"How'd you know?" asked the startled plowman. "Because we're watching you," headquarters replied.

Improvements in weather forecasting make it possible to hold snow crews back until they're really needed. That makes a huge difference, says Smith: "In the old days, we might fire up the trucks and keep them waiting. Now we can be much more precise with where we put our people and when we put them out. That's not just a money-saver, but it means the crews are fresher when they're most needed."

Other Money-Saving Alternatives

Quincy, Mass., is saving money by paying for its snow removal by the inch, not by the hour.

Public Works Commissioner Larry Prendeville says that Quincy first experimented with the idea in 2009, hiring a contractor to plow on a per-inch basis and achieving a savings of about 10 percent.

The rate paid the contractor depends on the depth of snowfall.

For storms dumping up to two inches, the contractor gets $8,600 for plowing out a typical ward.

If snowfall hits 12 inches, he gets $34,000 for the same ward. Such arrangements, long common between plowing companies and commercial parking lots, are new to government.

In Reno, Nev., officials are experimenting with a money-saving alternative to traditional salt-spreading. Salt, instead of being scattered in particulate form, is applied instead as a brine solution. This confers at least two advantages.

When salt is spread as particles, some 30 percent is lost to the wind or winds up sitting uselessly alongside the road. Applying it in solution allows for greater accuracy and prevents waste. Moreover, says Morton Satin, vice president for science and research of the Salt Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, the brine solution prevents snow from bonding with--and freezing to--the roadbed.

"Once that bond takes place," he says, "you have a totally different animal: a solid that you have to scrape to dislodge—very costly. If that bond's not formed, though, plowing is a breeze."

So good are the results of using brine solution that Reno won't have to sand its roads. Not only does putting down sand cost money, but a health department rule requires that it be swept back up within four days after a storm. That expense, too, will be saved.

Such economies matter in a city hard hit by recession, says Reno's director of public works, John Flansberg. "Things have been very tight, as you know. Reno and Nevada as a whole have been hard hit. We have very high unemployment."

The city's general fund—into which public works would need to dip if it exceeded its snow budget of $1.46 million--he describes as "pinched."

In prosperous times it has a reserve of 8 percent. That reserve now is 4 percent. So thin a cushion leaves Flansberg feeling concerned. "You don't have any control over the weather. If we get more snow, we may have to scale back some capital improvements."

Rand Decker, professor of civil engineering at Northern Arizona University, says cities have one more new weapon at their disposal: autonomous roadway sensors, each about the size of a hockey puck.

These, when buried in a roadway, keep track of and report the temperature of pavement.

Thus, plow crews can know with accuracy which roads will freeze first. The sensors also report the presence of absence of snow-fighting chemicals on the roadbed, and whether or not these chemicals are still concentrated enough to be effective.