Supply Problems, High Prices for Road Salt Stinging Winter Highway Budgets

AASHTO Journal, 31 October 2014

Nevada DOT truck with high-precision salt spreader to reduce runoff. Photos courtesy NDOT.

A spate of problems in the market for road salt, from supply shortages after last winter’s heavy demand to price spikes and delivery snags, is stressing winter maintenance budgets and stockpiling strategies as states, cities and counties try to get ready for what could be another tough winter. And those same problems are pointing more states toward innovations that can cut their rock salt usage.

Many highway agencies across the country that requested bids for salt this summer “were getting really high bids” to supply the material, “or none at all,” said Rick Nelson, coordinator of AASHTO’s Snow and Ice Pooled Fund Cooperative Program. That program tests winter-use ideas and materials, and spreads the message on best practices among the states.

Even now, he told the AASHTO Journal, “in some states they are just now getting deliveries on orders they placed in the spring.”

While a few road maintenance agencies are protected for supply and pricing under multiyear contracts, many either had trouble lining up supplies this year or found they could lay in enough salt only at significantly higher prices.

The price swings vary sharply. Pennsylvania officials report about a 9 percent price increase and say their suppliers are not warning of any shortages, but they say trucking capacity is tight to deliver the salt to local stockpile areas. Minnesota cities are also seeing higher prices and a lack of trucks that are busy with a late construction season, the AP reports.

Others are seeing much bigger spikes in their salt pricing, from 30 percent on average in New York to about 100 percent in Illinois, where a ton of salt jumped to $110 this year from $55 at this point in 2013. The city of Woodstock, Ill., got a bill for $140 a ton, the Woodstock Independent newspaper reports, up from just under $55 last year.

With salt prices soaring across the Ohio Valley, some cities switched from locking in their own supplies to letting the Ohio Department of Transportation make arrangements. ODOT officials say they went through two rounds of bids and each time rejected some for excessive pricing.

The Toledo Blade reported that an ODOT Indiana-based supplier finally locked in several shiploads of salt from Morocco that have begun arriving at the Port of Toledo in the state’s northwestern corner.

Nelson said all this has more state and local road maintenance agencies looking at salt-reduction options they might not consider during normal times.

Those can range from pre-storm applications of water-salt brine that highway workers can make at their salt storage sites, to sophisticated computer programs that predict weather problems and advise when and how to apply salt and other de-icers.

In some areas, such as the Lake Tahoe area of Nevada, with environmental concerns about salt runoff from winter applications, Nelson said road crews have deployed higher-cost but very precise salt spreaders such as are used in Europe where salt prices are much higher.

“With the cost of salt going up we’re going to have to take advantage of other options that have been around awhile,” he said, but which might require extra cost or training that agencies did not utilize when salt was relatively cheap.

Virginia, for one, is using more brine applications to cut its volume of dry salt use, which Nelson’s SICOP program advocates to prevent snow and ice from bonding onto road surfaces. VDOT says recycling the brine from holding ponds at its salt storage facilities also cuts the disposal costs it would incur to have that water moved and processed offsite. (See related story in this week’s States section.)

Nelson also said the salt market supply chain issues could remain for months or even years to come.

This year, some agencies face the start of winter with lower stocks than they might like, he said, and since “there’s not enough capacity to stockpile all your de-icing materials at one time,” salt will need to keep flowing.

Agency planners also wonder whether they can expect more harsh winters on average than in the past, Nelson said, or should treat last year as unusual. “That question has some folks struggling a bit,” he said, with “all the issues of budget and capacity” those judgments bring.

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