Franklin County Highway Administrator Ron Williams says this winter has been one of the worst he has encountered since the blizzards of the early 1980s.
He says it’s not so much the volume of snow and ice, but the frequency with which the storms have been hitting.
“Normally there is a lull in between, but these have been coming one after another,” Williams said. “It seems like we are having a weather event every week since the first of the year.”
Late last week, the county was again hit with a one-two punch of ice on Thursday morning and then snow Sunday, which challenged the county road fleet by catching them somewhat by surprise at the severity of icing and the lower than projected snowfall on Sunday morning. “Thursday was bad because of the timing when it hit,” Williams said. “Then Sunday we didn’t get as much as they forecast by a long shot. We figured the crews would be out all day, but they were done by early afternoon.”
Complicating the inconsistent forecasts even more are the concerns over equipment, overtime and salt supplies that have made this winter even more challenging.
Two of the county snowplows were heavily damaged in turnover accidents during the last weather event a few weeks ago, forcing the plowing routes to be reworked.
Williams said they were able to press an older truck, destined for auction, back into service to get them through the weather events this weekend and those that may still be in store this week.
“That truck is on its last legs,” Williams said. “We’re only going to use it to get through the winter weather.”
With snow and ice not only falling on Franklin County, the salt supplies for the entire region are being strained by the repeated storms.
Williams said during an average weather event, the county uses between 100 and 200 tons of salt.
When storage is at maximum capacity, the county can store about 1,200 tons of salt, at various locations, which is enough for about six winter storms.
“Right now we have about 400 tons of salt,” Williams said. “That should get us through the rest of the winter, but you never know. We also have been using a lot of cinders during the ice events.”
Williams said he is expecting another shipment of 200 tons of salt to arrive late this week or early next week, but because of low supply and high demand, the county will have to pay more than usual.
“We normally pay $80 per ton and this shipment is costing us $110 per ton,” Williams said. “The majority of what we’re getting comes from salt mines near New Orleans. It comes up here on barges and is off-loaded in St. Louis.”
He added if the salt supply does reach emergency status, there is a plan to obtain it from the Chicago area at a much higher cost because it would come through the Great Lakes.
“This is all higher than what we are used to paying,” Williams said. “This summer we will set up a bid package for salt to try and avoid the higher prices next winter.”
Salt and trucks are useless without manpower to operate them, but the multiple weather events are taking their toll on the county road employees and overtime budgets too.
“We budget weather based on what we feel,” Williams said. “The past couple of years we’ve spent less than we budgeted. This year we are blowing through it.”
The reason for the blown budgets is not only the frequency, but the timing of the weather events this season.
“The storms are not hitting between 9 and 5, Monday through Friday,” Williams said. “They have all been early in the morning, on weekends or holidays.”
According to the union contract with the highway department employees, the workday is specified at 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Employees can either take compensation time or overtime pay.
“Usually the guys like the comp time, but they can only take up to 60 hours,” Williams said. “They’ve had so many extra hours this season they are now being forced to take overtime pay.”
Another negative from the extended winter weather is the uncertainty of when to put away the winter gear and begin preparing for spring and summer road projects.
With another winter event in the forecast for Thursday morning, expected to bring icy conditions, Williams said the county is monitoring the weather and will be ready to tackle whatever comes this way. He just hopes the end is in sight.