Winter’s snowy barrage hammers road budgets

TRAVERSE CITY – In the 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 today’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.”

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.

In 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.