Can Warm Winter Snowplow Savings Fix Potholes?

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The mild winter of 2011-2012 is proving to be a windfall for state, city and county transportation departments. With less snow and ice to remove, that’s less plowing and salt spreading than in previous winters. Fewer days of plowing means less gas consumption and work crew overtime, and less salt to purchase as well. To municipalities of even a modest size, that can translate to tens of thousands of dollars saved.

The weather conditions also mean that fewer potholes will form. But will the money saved go to fixing the potholes that are already there?

National Public Radio reported in early February that there are multiple positive economic effects from the milder winter. Private construction projects are proceeding in places where temperatures and precipitation might otherwise preclude such economy-boosting factors from happening. Retail and restaurant traffic is up – it’s more likely that people will shop and go out when the roads are dry and the temperatures tolerable.

An NPR reporter interviewed Scott Bernhardt, whose firm Planalytics (based in Berwyn, Pennsylvania) looks at how weather affects economics, industry and consumer behavior. He explained that “local governments are saving tens of thousands of dollars because the snowplows and salt trucks are in dry dock,” according to the NPR report, which noted how 42 percent of the U.S. had snow cover in January 2011, but less than 13 percent of the country was under snow one year later, in January 2012.

Potholes are not absolutely tied to winter weather, of course. Pavement deterioration is a function of one, several or all of the following: moisture, freeze-thaw cycles, traffic loads and time, meaning that potholes can happen anywhere (some of the worst-rated roads in the U.S. are in Los Angeles and Honolulu, illustrating the point). But certainly, snow that falls on a 29-degree (F) day, packed into ice by moving vehicles will become water that gets into pavement cracks a few hours or days later when the temperatures rise just a few degrees. As trucks and cars roll across those cracks, the water is pushed deeper into the sub-pavement, where it might refreeze overnight and further undermine stressed asphalt. In a relatively short period of time, potholes appear.

Will dollars saved be used to repair potholes?

Many local municipalities are consequently reporting leftover cash from lower-than-budgeted use of snowplows and salt trucks this winter, and some are already talking about using the funds for infrastructure remediation. Some examples:

  • The Hazeldon, Pennsylvania StandardSpeaker.com reported in January that Hazeldon city crews are out fixing potholes, something they typically would not be doing until spring, when temperatures are more accommodating to hot asphalt mix (which cannot be applied in cold temperatures). The city had overspent its budget by $100,000 in 2007 when a massive snowstorm required hiring in outside snow removal contractors.
  • Le Mars, Iowa, the seat of Plymouth County, the savings in December alone from having no snow removal was between $50,000 and $60,000, about 15 percent of the secondary road budget. “Fuel usage is about half or 60 percent of what it is when they are plowing snow,” said Tom Rohe, county engineer, to the Le Mars Sentinel. “We’re not running 14 trucks on a route right now so our truck usage and fuel usage is quite a bit less.” Rohe said that if the favorable mild winter weather continues, they will be able to replace bridges and repair pavement in 2012.
  • Buffalo, New York, the seat of Erie County and regarded by many television meteorologists as the snow capital of the east, has seen significant savings in this season. While the ski resorts in the southern tier of the state, a mere hour’s drive south of Buffalo, are suffering, the county has thus far chalked up savings to the tune of $550,000 in salt, $120,000 in truck fuel and $150,000 in (budgeted) overtime pay. The nearby suburb of Amherst, home to the State University of New York Buffalo campus, expects to save about a half-million dollars if weather trends continue, reports the Buffalo News.

Regardless of location and even the cause of pavement potholes, delayed repairs have a multiplier effect on costs. By some estimates, every dollar not spent on repairs turns into seven dollars of cost in five years time. Road engineers and directors of departments of transportation understand this all too well, but recessionary times have meant more delays in crack sealing, pothole repairs and asphalt top-coating – putting off until the future the repairs that should be undertaken now.

With this winter’s reprieve from snow plowing and salt use, perhaps more of those pavement repairs will be made on a timely basis.