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March 20, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The town of Williston will continue to scrape by with a small stockpile of road salt for the rest of the snow season.

Public Works Director Neil Boyden said the town has been unable to procure enough salt to handle much more than a single storm. The town, like other municipalities throughout Vermont and the rest of country, has for months been dealing with a salt shortage due to the unusually severe winter.

The situation hasn't improved since the shortage was first reported last month, Boyden said. The town has cut back on the amount of salt it spreads even as a steady stream of storms have marched across the Northeast.

"I've got to hand it to residents, though," Boyden said. "The community has been very understanding. We've had very few calls from people."

Salt this winter has become an expensive commodity. Boyden said under a Vermont Agency of Transportation contract that also helps supply individual towns, Williston pays $49 a ton. But salt at that price is scarce, so Williston has been buying it for as much as $75 a ton, Boyden said.

The town recently found a new supplier. But Boyden said he didn't want to disclose the name lest other towns hone in on the arrangement.

Road crews for the last several weeks have been spreading a half-and-half mixture of salt and sand. Williston is skipping applications altogether on less-traveled roads and concentrating on hazardous areas that include hills, curves and intersections.

The weather this year has shattered records and tested motorists' patience. In February, 43.3 inches of snow fell, exceeding the previous record set in 1958 by nearly 8 inches, according to National Weather Service office in South Burlington. Including last weekend's storm, 112.2 inches of snow had been recorded as of Monday, the seventh-snowiest season on record.

Aside from the sheer volume of snow, this winter has also been remarkable for the number of storms. Since a brief respite in early January, "it was like one day on, one day off or every other day," said Jason Neilson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

It all adds up to a budget-breaker for Williston. The town planned to spend $98,700 on salt in the 2007-08 fiscal year. As of last week, the town had spent $113,000.

Williston is still within its overtime budget for plow drivers, Boyden said. Many if not most of the storms have occurred during weekdays, a money-saver for the town, albeit a headache for commuters.

Relief from this seemingly endless winter may still be weeks away. The long-term forecast calls for precipitation in some form by mid-week and a potential snowstorm over the weekend, Neilson said.

Boyden noted the last date plows hit the road varies wildly from year to year. In 2006, snowplows were parked for the season on March 21. Last year, the final plowing took place April 16.

Late winter and early spring in Vermont can bring highly unpredictable — and surprisingly snowy — weather, Neilson said.

"It's not out of the question in March and April to have one big one with 10 to 12 inches or more," he said.

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