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

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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.

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