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Winter's snowy barrage hammers US road budgets

The Winter That Was: What It Cost Us

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- In Michigan's way-up-north Keweenaw Peninsula, where 200 inches of snow in a single season elicits barely a shrug, officials know there's nothing in the budget more important than keeping the roads passable.

Yet even they have been caught short this merciless winter. Houghton County planned to spend around $2.1 million for plowing, salting and related maintenance, which experience suggested would be plenty, but has overshot it by $500,000 and counting.

State and local governments across a huge swath of the nation, from the Great Plains to the Upper Midwest and the Deep South to New England, are experiencing sticker shock after one of the coldest, snowiest, iciest winters in memory. Many have spent two or three times as much as they budgeted for clearing roads. More bad weather could send costs higher.

Even as Thursday's official arrival of spring presages warmer weather, it's clear that winter's bitter aftertaste will linger much longer as officials compensate for untold millions in unexpected spending that includes patching a rash of potholes. In some states, legislatures are already preparing emergency appropriations. Elsewhere, road agencies are delaying repaving projects, cutting back on roadside mowing and summer hires, dipping into rainy-day funds and making do with battered equipment instead of buying more.

"It'll have a considerable impact on cities and their fiscal health," said James Brooks of the National League of Cities. "Just as they're emerging from the depths of the great recession, they got whacked very hard by this intemperate winter."

Its sheer ferocity caught nearly everyone by surprise, including those for whom dealing with cold and snow is second nature.

"This is a very unique winter, even talking with some of the old timers who have been here longer than I have," said Houghton County highway engineer Kevin Harju, a resident of the Lake Superior community since 1976. "You can get a lot of snow or you can get extremely low temperatures, but not both - except this year."

Virginia budgeted $157 million for snow removal and may exceed it by $150 million - probably the most the state has ever spent for the purpose. "The bills are still coming in," spokeswoman Tamara Rollinson said.

Montgomery County, Md., in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, has spent three times its budgeted amount. Illinois is 200 percent over its three-year average, and its crews have spread almost double the usual volume of salt - a mixed blessing, since it corrodes roads and bridges as it melts the snow. North Carolina planned for $40 million and has spent $62 million. Arkansas, where ice is often a bigger problem than snow, has spent a record $18 million, three times its seasonal average.

Ernie Winters, highway commissioner in Winnebago County, Wis., thought things were tough in 2013 when his department blew through its winter maintenance budget by April. But now he's over budget again - by an even bigger margin.

"Last winter was a peach compared to this one," he lamented.

Officials are scrambling to make up for the massive cost overruns. Atlanta, pummeled by ice storms that created epic traffic jams, is dipping into a rainy-day fund to cover $13.5 million in cleanup costs. In Michigan, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, legislators have approved special appropriations that will help but won't pay for everything.

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities is lobbying its lawmakers for relief. "This is like being hit by a tornado or flooding, although we haven't had any loss of life and the pictures aren't quite as dramatic," Executive Director Dan Thompson said.

Transportation agencies insist they won't neglect filling potholes, a top priority because they're a safety hazard and hugely expensive. The typical U.S. vehicle owner spends an extra $335 a year on repairs caused by rough roads, while in large cities the average is $746, says Tony Dorsey of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

And by all indications this year's crop of potholes will be one of the most bountiful ever. In Michigan, where frost lines extend up to 80 inches below ground, Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle recently warned legislators to brace for "one of the biggest pavement breakouts we've ever seen in our lifetime."

In many places, cutbacks will be made on maintenance planned for spring and summer: replacing worn-out sections of pavement; filling cracks with tar; restriping lane markers. It's not sexy, but officials say the basic upkeep prevents deterioration that requires even costlier fixes in the future.

"Your road shoulders are crumbling on the edges and people think, `So what?'" said Randy Ort of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. "...But having the shoulder in good condition keeps moisture off the travel lanes, which helps keep potholes from occurring. So it's very important."

In Michigan's Houghton County, highway engineer Harju has been waiting for an opportunity to repave and improve drainage on a road that provides access to Lake Superior and a park that's important for tourism. The federal government would pick up most of the tab, but 20 percent must be paid locally.

The project is "hanging in the balance because our matching funds are being spent on snow removal," Harju said, adding that funding is so short that some roads may have to be converted to gravel.

Equipment purchases are another likely casualty.

Many of the state's 83 counties are equally desperate to replace aging graders and plow trucks, said Denise Donahue of the County Road Association of Michigan. "We're starting to see an unraveling of our road infrastructure," she said.

Bethlehem, Pa., will delay a park upgrade and a downtown streetscape project, public works director Mike Alkhal said. The city has no choice after more than doubling its usual winter maintenance spending.

"It was practically around the clock for days and days and weeks and weeks," Alkhal said, referring to the road crews' overtime.

In many cities and counties, officials say it's too early to know what will be sacrificed, as winter's toll is still being tallied. And the despised polar vortex could always stir up more trouble on its way out.

"We're expecting a couple more storms," said Bruce Stelzner, highway commissioner in Chippewa County, Wis., "which will dig our hole a little deeper."


Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Jason Keyser in Chicago, Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania, Larry O'Dell in Richmond, Va., Tom Foreman Jr. in Charlotte, N.C., Kelly Kissel in Little Rock, Ark., Bob Salsberg in Boston, Phillip Lucas in Atlanta, Donna Bryson in Denver, Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Matt Volz in Helena, Mont.


Join the discussion

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jgesselberty March 20 2014 at 3:03 PM

Boo, hoo. When we have mild winters, do the taxpayers get a break? I think not.

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Debbie March 21 2014 at 2:49 AM

They just said...they over budgeted on other things and took away from the roads...bout time they realize in the North it is going to be winter and we will get a lot of storms in a season....why don't they over budget on the roads and if they don't use it on the winter they can use it in other areas?

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Jeannette March 21 2014 at 2:51 AM

How about if they transfer some money dumped into the phony global warming debacle and put it to the immediate needs of our country -- that appears to be coming into a mini ice age? Trillions for global warming and for what?

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1 reply
TED Jeannette March 21 2014 at 9:57 AM

They can't . The Republicans need it for sky high defense budgets and subsidy support for countries that will buy our arms

Flag Reply 0 rate up
slowrideneasy March 21 2014 at 4:20 AM

Well they complain about over budget. I have your answer. As a trucker that runs the N/E and midwest, but lives south. Between tolls and bad interstates that the fuel taxes SHOULD be paying for. How about quit robbing all these tax dollars and giving it away to welfare and housing, and use it for what it was meant to be used for. If politicians were for the people they would put a limit on welfare and thuroughly check the SSDI program for true claims. just a suggestion to think about.

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2 replies
vendelavee slowrideneasy March 21 2014 at 9:21 AM

And than after you are laid off your job or get fired or your company goes out of business, there will be no welfare and housing for YOU! You will then enjoy the experience the joys of sleeping on the street, going hungry, and suffering when you get sick can't get medical treatment.

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TED slowrideneasy March 21 2014 at 9:54 AM

I have a better idea . Double the taxes on Diesel fuel and get the truckers to pay for the high percentage of damage their trucks cause. Just something to think about.

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blueeyessing March 21 2014 at 5:51 AM

Here, the owners of the cars that crashed and slid into the guard rails, mostly on the highway, have to pay for the damage themselves through their insurance companies. This has saved the city $4 million so far. Of course somebody has to go through all of the thousands of accident reports to find those people.

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hman570 March 21 2014 at 5:58 AM

Don't feel sorry for all these towns that are so called over budget this winter. What about all the years that there was no snow or really bad weather? Where do all that money go to? Rather then bank it for a rainy day it get pocketed by the currupt politicians that start early to steal from the taxpayers. So when these towns cry poor I just sit back and laugh.

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2 replies
campfg11 hman570 March 21 2014 at 8:07 AM

I was going to post the same thing but you did a fine job. I , also, wonder where the excess money goes when its a mild winter.

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vendelavee hman570 March 21 2014 at 9:16 AM

Your view is based on ignorance. The cost of everything goes up, and NEW unexpected costs are a regular thing for most cities and municipalities. There are always things that are falling apart that need to be fixed, things that are mandated by the Feds and State that HAVE to be paid for, worn out and outdated equipment that has to be fixed or replaced, wages, salaries, pensions and health care premiums that increase, etc. What ever is left from the "snow" fund each year is used to pay for other necessary things. Like gas for the school buses your kids ride one that keeps going up.

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cbcelmayster March 21 2014 at 7:14 AM

This winter has totallt dispelled the mythe of global warming, whick the kooks then will morph into their other misnomer and lie of MAN MADE climate change..

I suppose that the millions of years of climate change before the last 50 years of horrible mans "made up" huge impact on our climate and impending doom - all created to gain more government control and impose taxes etc..- was due to human and beatial flatulation????

Granted there may be - perhaps - a 1% impact on our climate but please let the lemmings and sheep who espouse this belief follow each other over the cliff....STOP THE INSANITY!!!!

Flag Reply +5 rate up
Zach's Father March 21 2014 at 8:40 AM

In NYC it's over budget spending on snow removal lies on the workers who did do a great job this year. Some of what I saw would make anyone say WTF. Driving with snow chains well in advance of snowfall. Anyone wiith knowledge knows this is a no no. Plowing a street that is already cleaned and leaving an unplowed one, well unplowed. Again I will say they did a great job in removal and a great job padding the hours.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
ellwangert March 21 2014 at 8:42 AM

cities facing sticker shock....what about my heating bills!!!!!!!!!! over twice normal this year!!!
can i get some federal relief too?

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1 reply
hkelley350 ellwangert March 21 2014 at 9:17 AM

I hear you about those heating bills. I am on Social Security, and my Con Edison heating bills have been 53-69% of my monthly Social Security check this winter. I am also in need of some of that federal relief just to eat and pay my other bills (car insurance, basic cable which includes telephone, gasoline for the car, monthly medicine, disability insurance rider & storage fees). I'm sitting here wondering how I am going to make it--Federal relief please! (at least to get me through).

Flag Reply +2 rate up
Dorth March 21 2014 at 2:30 AM


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2 replies
elrod.porkmore Dorth March 21 2014 at 3:38 AM

michelle gets to take 50 friends on vacation

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
TED elrod.porkmore March 21 2014 at 10:02 AM

To revise the quote of the Trix Cereal commercial. Stupid Republicans, infantile comments are for conservatives.

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vendelavee Dorth March 21 2014 at 9:30 AM

The unused money from the snow removal budget is used for OTHER necessary things like road repairs, replacing worn out and broke equipment, municipal vehicle maintenance, building maintanence, legal fees, trash removal costs, law enforcement costs, increased gas and fuel costs, and on and on. Just as your cost of living keeps going up, the costs of running a state, city or municipality continually go up with many things wearing out and needing to be fixed, replaced and upgraded on a regular basis. Think a little bit!

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