BANGOR, Maine — The life of a winter road maintenance worker is always a delicate balancing act this time of year.
Dozens of crew supervisors with the Maine Department of Transportation and some local public works officials, are tasked weekly, sometimes daily, with deciding when and where to dispense salt or sand on slippery roads. If they respond to the first sign of any rain or snow, they risk depleting an expensive supply. If they try to conserve, they risk public safety.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge we face,” said Brian Burne, highway maintenance engineer for the DOT. “No matter what you choose, someone isn’t going to agree. It’s a tough job.”
Although winter won’t officially arrive for another few weeks, road crews already have begun their yearly balancing act.
The DOT has about 70 crew locations throughout the state and several hundred employees who essentially are on call 24 hours a day. Each crew has a supervisor who monitors weather patterns and road conditions for a given area and decides what to do from there.
“I think we’re kind of fortunate in that we can see storms coming across the country,” Burne said. “We have a basic strategy that we work off from, and because we see so much winter weather, we’ve gotten pretty good.”
Bangor Public Works Director Dana Wardwell, whose team is responsible for maintaining all secondary roads within the city, agreed that winter preparation is down to a science.
“We’re still fortunate to have 24-hour coverage here,” he said. “From November 1 on, we have a foreman on call, and we monitor weather through a computer service. Based on what is showing, the foreman makes a determination on what and who to call in, and we go from there.”
Last year, winter road workers dealt with far more storms than in average years, according to Burne. The state and municipalities typically purchase the same amount of salt and sand each year, but this year, the price of salt could be a bigger factor. While it’s still early in the season, the price of salt already has increased from $58 a ton last year to more than $70 this year.
The good news, Burne said, is that road safety is a high priority, so if more money is needed, it’s available. The bad news is that something else might suffer.
“Snow and ice control is about safety, so that goes to the top of the list,” he said. “But there are other things that might get pushed. It’s not like we have a blank check.”
In Bangor, the city budgeted $323,300 for salt and sand this season, an increase of about 10 percent over last year, reflecting the spike in salt costs. Wardwell said it’s better to budget high and not use it all than to run out.
“I give them a standing order that safety is the first priority,” Wardwell said. “We’re lucky that the [city] council has provided the resources for us to maintain safety. Having been out there, I wouldn’t want to have to make decisions based on funding.”
Supply and pricing concerns seem to be magnified in other parts of the country.
Some towns are paying as much as $170 a ton as salt prices nationwide soar because of shipping problems and surging demand. Hoping for the best — but preparing for the worst — communities are making plans to stretch supplies by mixing salt with sand, brine or even beet juice.
In New Hampshire, the state expects to pay $2 million to $3 million more than the $8 million it typically spends on salt. In North Dakota, the state transportation department, which paid about $1.6 million for 29,000 tons of road salt last year, said the price jumped from about $40 a ton in 2004 to about $67 a ton this winter.
Things are not as bad in Maine.
“The biggest problem is not supply but using more than can be trucked to your location,” Burne said. “The salt companies have it, it’s just a matter of getting it when we need it.”
As the winter season fast approaches, the only thing that’s truly certain is that road crews won’t be able to please everyone when a storm is bearing down and decisions have to be made.
“It’s a tough thing for anyone to make that determination,” Burne said. “We get pressure from all sides — budget, safety, environmental consideration — you have to find balance of all those things.”
Burne said there is one thing motorists can do to help out: Slow down.
“There will always be adverse conditions, and we can’t afford to have the roads maintained through a storm the same way as when the roads are dry,” he said. “If people slow down, they can still get from point A to point B.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.