State DOTs Deployed Huge Fleets at High Costs to Combat 2014-15 Winter Storms

AASHTO Journal, 8 May 2015

State departments of transportation ran up more than $1.1 billion in costs to try to keep roads open during the winter of 2014-15, according to a survey conducted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

That survey captured much of the heaviest-hit winter storm areas, and showed many states ended up spending a major part of their full-year maintenance budgets just to get through snow and ice.

The 23 states that responded said they spent about $1.13 billion from October 2014 to mid-April 2015 to pre-treat, plow roads or spread chemicals and other materials on roadways to keep them open and operating safely.

AASHTO Executive Director Bud Wright said the results underscore the range of work state DOTs do throughout the year, in addition to road paving and construction projects they launch when winter is past. And they bear major costs to keep the system running.

Their responsibilities, Wright said, “go far beyond planning, designing, constructing and maintaining roadways and bridges. When we think about funding transportation, we need to consider the total amount needed to keep people and goods moving throughout the entire year. The 23 surveyed states spent more than a billion dollars and eight million work hours this winter season. That’s indicative of the amount of resources needed and the commitment and dedication displayed by state DOTs.”

An AP report noted that the actual nationwide costs to taxpayers of clearing roads this past winter were doubtless much higher, since “not all states responded and the expenses incurred by municipalities for plowing local roads were seen as comparable to state governments.”

An AASHTO announcement about this first-ever Winter Maintenance Operations survey includes a link to a spreadsheet in which the state agencies detail the work they put in.

Those reporting included the Massachusetts DOT, which battled 31 winter storms that included two of its heaviest snowfalls on record. Across the season, the Boston area received 110.6 inches of snowfall and Worcester received 119.7 inches, while the state also recorded 43 consecutive days of temperatures below 40 degrees. MassDOT’s  snow removal costs reached $153.7 million by March 21.

The eastern United States in general went through a tougher-than-normal winter. The Maryland State Highway Administration spent $108 million for winter operations, AASHTO said, or 32 percent of its full-year maintenance budget. Connecticut spent $45 million or 33 percent of its annual budget, and New Hampshire spent $46 million or 55 percent.

“Comparatively speaking, this was an extremely challenging winter season,” said Rick Nelson, coordinator of the AASHTO Snow and Ice Cooperative Program. “Multiple southern states were hit hard by ice storms, and the eastern part of the U.S. – especially New England – had their budgets squeezed by a concentration of snow storms and freezing temperatures.”

Nelson said part of the burden on state agencies came from the long series of big storms. “Not only were eastern states pounded by record-setting snowfall, he said, but “the winter storms kept coming, one after the other, compelling DOTs to keep plows on the road the entire season.”

The survey found that state DOT employees and their contract road crews logged 8 million work hours, used a fleet of more than 24,000 snow plows and trucks and spread about six million tons of road salt.

And that heavy winter left a big job for the spring. “When you’ve got a massive fleet of more than 20,000 pieces of equipment on our roadways removing snow and ice, there’s going to be wear and tear,” Nelson said. “The snow may have disappeared, but state DOTs are left with leaner budgets and miles of potholes to repair.”

Among the survey respondents, 11 states described the season as “difficult to severe.” They are Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

AASHTO said Indiana, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Washington state and Wyoming all said they had a mild winter. However, as AASHTO Journal has reported, even in mid-April a sudden blinding snowstorm closed a large stretch of Interstate 80 in Wyoming and produced numerous highway crashes.

Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan and Nebraska reported an average winter season, AASHTO said.

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