When it comes to the cost of clearing Maine roads this winter, it’s not so much the depth of the snow that’s causing pain.
It’s the ice.
Now that they have hit the unofficial halfway point of winter, public officials in southern Maine say they have used far more salt and sand than usual, largely because freezing rain and ice have repeatedly coated roads and sidewalks. And, some officials say, if the second half of this winter includes many more storms like the one that dropped nearly 9 inches of snow Wednesday on Portland, they will soon overshoot their annual road-clearing budgets.
Already, Portland has spent nearly all of the $1 million it budgeted for the entire winter. And the Maine Department of Transportation has far exceeded what it spends in a typical winter, which may mean less money for tree trimming and other projects in the spring and summer.
“This winter has not only been a lot of storms, but the ice storms really eat up the budget because you’re constantly treating the roads,” said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the MDOT, which treats roads across the state.
Last year, some communities got a little help with snow removal costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provided $3.5 million to cover costs associated with the blizzard in February that dumped more than 30 inches of snow on the area. That appears unlikely to happen this year because the storms, while plentiful, have not been major events.
Wednesday’s storm was pretty straightforward for crews that removed snow from the roads, but storms this winter that included freezing rain and ice were far more complicated and expensive.
“We’ll use as much salt in one of those (icy storms) as we do with a foot of snow, if not more,” said Tom Eldridge, public services director for Westbrook.
Before Wednesday, Westbrook had used about 1,400 of the 2,100 tons of rock salt it had budgeted for the winter. Eldridge said the city has already used more than 1,500 cubic yards of sand, the typical amount it expects to use on roads and sidewalks in a full winter.
“We’ve had other winters where we’ve had similar situations, but then the snow season just seems to shut off,” Eldridge said. “Hopefully, that will be the case this year, but it doesn’t sound like it.”
Wednesday’s storm was a clear reminder that winter is far from over. Portland gets an average of 25 inches of snow in February and March. The blizzard that dropped 2 to 3 feet on southern Maine last winter began on Feb. 8.
The Department of Transportation had spent $11.6 million on snow removal through the end of December, far surpassing its average of $7.9 million for a winter. January numbers were not yet available Wednesday.
Portland has nearly tapped out the $1 million it planned to spend for snow removal this winter, mainly to buy salt and pay for overtime and contracted equipment, said Mike Bobinsky, the city’s director of public services. The department may have to turn to the city’s general fund for more money if it goes over budget, he said.
“This year we’ve seen several icing events, which causes us to use a fair amount of materials,” said Eric Labelle, the city’s deputy director of public services.
The city is responsible for clearing about 560 miles of roads and 100 miles of sidewalks.
Robert Burns, public works director in Gorham, said freezing rain and ice have added “an extreme degree of difficulty” to clearing 146 miles of road and more than eight miles of sidewalks. Gorham has used 70 percent to 75 percent of its budget for salt and sand. This year, the town budgeted $40,000 for sand and $93,000 for salt, he said.
“We certainly have used a lot more overtime and materials than in a typical winter,” Burns said. “And there’s still a lot of winter left.”
Last year, Gorham caught a break when it received $35,000 from FEMA for assistance with snow removal costs from the blizzard on Feb. 8 and 9.
“Last year, we would have gone over budget if it wasn’t for that,” Burns said. “This year, we haven’t heard of any FEMA assistance, so we could go over budget.”
The Maine Turnpike Authority is in the fortunate position of operating on a calendar year instead of a fiscal year budget, so it got a fresh start Jan. 1, said spokeswoman Erin Courtney. The authority budgets about $1 million for sand and salt each year.
“We have had 10 consecutive weekends with some sort of snow or frozen precipitation,” Courtney said. “As a result, we have already had to order more salt.”
Not everyone is sweating over the snow forecasts – yet.
The break in snowfall in the past couple of weeks allowed Saco to get back on track with its snow removal budget, said Patrick Fox, the city’s public works director.
“We’re about 70 percent through our salt budget, but for overtime we’re where we should be,” Fox said. “It balances out a bit.”
Burns, the public works director in Gorham, said he views early February as the halfway point for the plowing season, but recognizes “March in particular can be a pretty rough month for weather.”
“I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet,” he said.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: