Snow-packed winter melts town

Town cuts usage to shave expenses

Feb. 12, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The town has all but exhausted its budget for road salt with two months of the snow season still to go.

As of Feb. 4, Williston had spent 96 percent of its $106,400 budget for salt, according to Public Words Director Neil Boyden. The town had planned to spread 1,920 tons of salt this winter; it has used 1,844 tons so far.

The situation seems counterintuitive, with recent weather featuring bitter-cold temperatures and little precipitation. But Boyden, who said the town will continue to spread salt regardless of the budget, noted that snow totals are running well above average and the many small storms last month consumed salt at a rapid rate.

“Every day in January we had like a half-inch or an inch of snow, or we were chasing snowdrifts,” he said.

Road-clearing crews have been out 46 times, a much greater than average number for this time of year.

The National Weather Service office in South Burlington had recorded 71.6 inches of snow as of Feb. 5. That is 22.7 inches above average for that date, said forecaster Jason Neilson. The average annual snowfall is 83.1 inches.

“We have the potential to get much more,” Neilson said. “March and April can be big months.

The town of Williston and other Vermont municipalities struggled to pay for salt during the past two snow seasons, which run from mid-November to mid-April.

Last winter, record-setting snowfalls across the northern United States created a salt shortage, driving up prices and forcing both the state of Vermont and municipalities to secure supplies from alternative sources.

Williston was unable at one point to stockpile enough salt to deal with more than a single storm. The $49 a ton price the town paid at the beginning of last winter rose as high as $75 a ton.

By mid-March, the town had exceeded its salt budget by $15,000. The town stopped spreading salt on smaller, less-traveled roads in Williston’s many subdivisions.

Boyden restarted the salt austerity program this January. He said the town has been selective, skipping salt application only on straight, low-speed, lightly traveled roads.

There have been no salt shortages so far this winter. But Boyden said the price paid by Williston is still $55 a ton. So despite a budget increase, the town is trying to use less salt than in previous years.

Meanwhile, the town has actually used more of its salt budget than it did by the same point in each of the past five years. Last winter, the town had used 88 percent of money set aside for salt by early February.

With more snowfall nearly certain before the snow season ends in mid-April, Boyden said he will likely be looking for other areas of his nearly $1 million road maintenance budget to cut. He said there may be fewer roads repaved in the summer.

“It’ll be the same as last year — we’ll suck it up,” he said.