Snow vacation ends for plowing crews

Recent storms make up for winter’s warm start

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Two weeks ago, the winter looked like an easy one for Williston’s snowplowing crews. Salt and sand usage was well below average. Only a fraction of the town’s annual winter road maintenance budget had been spent.

But after an ice storm on Martin Luther King Day and a series of small, wind-driven snowfalls last week, it is beginning to look more like the typical Vermont winter. The budget surplus for plowing is shrinking like a snowdrift on a sunny afternoon.

“It changed a lot because we had a number of storms,” said Neil Boyden, who oversees snowplowing as Williston’s public works director. “We’ve been out several times – we didn’t miss many days in the past two weeks.”

On Monday, with the midpoint of the plowing season (mid-November to mid-April) approaching, the town had spent 56 percent of its $88,000 annual budget for salt, spreading 1,135 tons of the stuff. Back on Jan. 5, Williston had used only a third of the salt budget.

The total winter road maintenance budget for 2006-07 is $369,792, which includes salt and sand as well as labor, equipment and fuel costs. Boyden said total plowing expenditures track salt usage, meaning that about half the road-clearing budget has been spent so far this winter.

The town experienced seven snow “events” in the nine-day period ending Jan. 22. “Events” are characterized as snowfall that sticks to roads. The town has also had five “chasers” during the period, which are when snowdrifts pile up in roads.

“Friday, it snowed all day and the wind blew,” Boyden said. “So we had to go out constantly with two or three trucks to chase drifts.”

All the flurries, however, have added up to relatively little total snow this winter. The National Weather Service reported 28.2 inches of snow as of Jan. 21, about 11 inches less than normal for this time of year. The Burlington area averages 81.2 inches of snow each winter.

Unseasonably warm temperatures have kept the snowfall below average, but it appears Mother Nature is now making up for lost time, said Greg Hanson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“We got off to such a warm start in November and December,” he said. “In the last week or two, we got into more of a normal weather pattern.”

Though snowfall has been scant, frequent flurries and high winds have hit the area over the past week. The National Weather Service measured gusts of at least 29 mph on each day from Jan. 18 through Jan. 20.

The town of Williston has a fleet of seven full-size plows and 12 drivers to clear about 75 miles of paved and unpaved roads. Each plow is responsible for about 10 miles. The town uses a private contractor to plow narrower streets that full-size trucks cannot traverse.

Boyden said the number of storms, not just the total snowfall, drives road-clearing costs. Storms that fall on evenings and holidays also increase costs.

“When you get snow in small increments, it just zaps resources for salt, manpower and overtime,” he said. “It takes just as much effort to clear.”