December 22, 2014

Winter a real snow job

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Town exceeds plowing budget

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Back in January, it seemed this would be an easy winter for snowplow drivers.

Maybe next year.

Unseasonably warm and dry weather in December and early January soon gave way to record-setting snowstorms and below-zero temperatures. Though the nor’easter earlier this week produced little snow in Chittenden County, the area has easily exceeded its average annual snowfall.

Williston’s plowing budget has taken the hit. As of April 5, the town had spent about $97,000 on salt, $9,000 over budget, according to Public Works Director Neil Boyden.

Total plowing expenses tend to track salt usage, so it’s likely the town will exceed the town’s $369,792 annual winter maintenance budget.

Overtime costs for plow drivers are also running at or over the annual budget. So it’s no surprise that they are as ready as everyone else for this late-blooming winter to end.

“They’re sick of it, is the bottom line,” Boyden said. “You fully expect that for three or four months you are going to be ready to perform at a moment’s notice.” But by April, he said, drivers are ready to return to a more routine schedule.

The past three months have seen the second-largest snowstorm on record, another substantial storm in March and some smaller snowfalls in April. Those storms were punctuated by numerous thaw-and-freeze cycles that required salt to keep roads clear.

The snow season’s apex was the Valentine’s Day blizzard. Snow totals exceeded 30 inches in some areas, and 25.7 inches was recorded by the National Weather Service in South Burlington. It was the second-largest snowstorm ever for the area, exceeded only by a days-long storm in December 1969.

Another storm on St. Patrick’s Day this year dumped 13 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. Not including the most recent snow, 9.2 inches had fallen in April.

In all, 94.6 inches of snow has been recorded in the Burlington area this winter, exceeding by more than a foot the annual average of 81.2 inches.

The Valentine’s Day storm in particular taxed plowing crews in Williston. Some drivers worked 20-hour shifts, Boyden said. Plows broke down. Others got stuck.

The storm set a record for snowfall within a 24-hour period. But Mark Russell, assistant road foreman in Williston, said other storms have been tougher because they lasted longer.

Still, Russell, who has worked for the town for 11 years, said this winter’s unusual rhythm has been hard on drivers.

“It’s been different,” he said. “It was easy the first part. This part of the year shouldn’t linger on this long.”

Any more snow will put the town further over its plowing budget and force cutbacks in the town’s overall road maintenance efforts, Boyden said. In years past, the town has repaved fewer roads to stay within budget.

“As we continue to spend funds on winter maintenance, summer maintenance projects will get postponed,” Boyden said.

Bob Schiesser, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in South Burlington, said the forecast calls for warmer temperatures – and no more snow – this weekend.

He said as the days pass, snowstorms become more and more unlikely. And the long-range forecast is blessedly free of predictions for more white stuff.

“Looking to the horizon, I really don’t see any more snowstorms,” Schiesser said.

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