Remember last winter? All that snow and cold and misery?
It was also an expensive one for clearing roads at the state and local levels.
A just-released report from the Minnesota Department of Transportation showed that the state spent nearly $133 million to clear roads last winter as crews faced some of the most severe weather in a decade.
That’s up about 7 percent from the winter of 2017-2018.
The increase was more dramatic for the city of Alexandria. The cost of snow removal maintenance, including wages, fuel and salt, was $280,492 – up nearly 75 percent from the previous winter’s expense of $160,320, according to figures provided by Dane Bosl, director of the city’s street department.
“As far as the challenges of the last winter, it was probably the most extreme I have seen in the eight years I have been here,” Bosl said, adding that the winter of 2012-2013 was similar.
“One major problem we ran into was getting salt,” Bosl added. “I know that the state and county also had trouble. The vendor we contracted with ran out so we had to use another vendor. So instead of our salt coming from Duluth or the Twin Cities, it came all the way from Kanopolis, Kansas.”
Bosl offered an example of how busy crews were during a storm that hit on Dec. 27-28.
“We hauled 800 20-yard loads of snow in two days,” he said. “That is the biggest two-day total of snow hauled away we have ever had.”
There was a bright side of the winter’s onslaught. City crews were able to stay on top of it.
“Fortunately, we didn’t experience many major breakdowns,” Bosl said, "so we were able to keep up with storms as they hit as good as we possibly could.”
County was braced for the worst
Because Douglas County Public Works Director Dave Robley never knows what to expect, his office always plans for the worst-case scenario.
He said it is difficult to budget for specific events because the county’s operations are mostly reactive, meaning, “We can tell you what it costs after the fact.”
Robley gave an example. He said wages are in the Public Works payroll budget and would be there whether they plow snow or not. However, if his employees are not plowing snow, those hours get charged out to another operation.
Another oddity for the county budget, said Robley, is that the fiscal year starts Jan. 1, so every winter is divided into two budget cycles.
For the winter of 2017-18, the county spent a total of $756,509, which includes wages, equipment, fuel and salt/sand. For last winter, 2018-19, the county spent almost $1.05 million, or about 38 percent more.
Broken down, the county spent:
- 63 percent more on wages – $189,075 compared to $116,033.
- 39 percent more for equipment – $618,726 compared to $444,053.
- 49 percent more on fuel – $101,433 compared to $68,050.
- 7 percent more for salt/sand – $137,149 compared to $127,921.
In a difficult winter, such as last winter, Robley said, the increased costs cover overtime, additional fuel, additional repairs and additional salt. He noted that while the increases for wages, equipment and fuel increased between 40 and 60 percent, salt/sand only increased by 7 percent.
“This is due to the new techniques implemented and our conscious efforts to reduce the amount of salt used on our roads,” said Robley.
Despite the icy winter, Steve Johansen, the county's maintenance superintendent, said that the county still has 700 tons of unused salt because he required his workers to use less salt last year and more productive methods.
"As a result, we won’t have to purchase as much salt this year," he said. "We are also nominated for a national award for using 30 to 40 percent less salt. That doesn’t mean that we will get the award, but I was kind of proud to be nominated."
Snow packed a punch statewide
According to MnDOT’s report, the statewide snowfall average was 97.2 inches, the result of 31 snowfalls during the 2018-19 winter season. Those storms created a statewide Winter Severity Index score of 154, nearly 40 points higher than during 2017-18 and the most severe since MnDOT began tracking a severity level this way.
The Winter Severity Index compares nine factors that affect snow and ice removal, including temperature, hours of snowfall, blowing snow and precipitation type.
“Snowfall amounts don’t tell the whole story about the challenges MnDOT crews face during winter,” said Jed Falgren, acting state maintenance engineer. “Every area of the state experienced more hours of snowfall compared to the previous winter. Road and air temperature averages were down and hours of freezing rain were up — those elements have a huge impact on how quickly we can clear roads.”
Falgren said snowplow drivers in Minnesota worked more than 198,000 hours of overtime during the 2018-19 winter and exceeded the bare lane target goals for all road classifications within 36 hours after a snowfall.
MnDOT used less road salt and sand during the 2018-19 season compared to the previous winter, applying more liquid chemicals, such as potassium acetate, BEET HEET, Apex-C and RG8. Falgren said the chemicals proved to enhance the performance of road salt during extreme conditions, which led to routes being cleared faster and with less material.