Worth their salt

A Naperville city plow passes the
A Naperville city plow passes the "big N" building as it clears Washington Street on Thursday morning. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media

For those who haven’t noticed, winter already has pummeled the Chicago area this season, bringing some of the heaviest snowfall and coldest temperatures in decades.

And irrespective of Sunday’s arrival of Groundhog Day, it’s clear the season is nowhere near done.

“It arrived early, and it’s hanging around,” said Linda LaCloche, Naperville’s communications manager. “We’re all hoping for a break, but we have February still to go.”

Season-long snowfall totals in the metropolitan area average 36.7 inches, according to records kept by the National Weather Service. As of Friday, the region was closing in on 50 inches since late November, and snow was falling Friday night and Saturday as well.

It comes as no surprise that local jurisdictions have been plenty busy in recent weeks, removing snow from highways and streets, and making those roads safe for drivers to navigate. Adding to their woes is a shortage that has developed in the availability of road salt, a function of demand exhausting supply — which is likely to mean inflated prices next season.

The one-two punch of cold and snow also has added costs to the tasks. Naperville City Council members are poised to allocate up to $190,000 more to cover plowing contractors at their meeting Tuesday night. The expenditure would boost the initially budgeted outlay by just less than 50 percent.

The Public Works Department also will be looking for the go-ahead Tuesday to buy another 2,367 tons of road salt, if there is that much to be had, after using most of the 14,050 tons included in this year’s budget. The additional $118,256 expense would bring the city to its salt cap, under stipulations of the collaborative state purchasing agreement used for the purpose. And with current prices hovering just below $50 per ton, the buy will prove prudent if the city doesn’t go through all of the added salt this year.

“Historically, when we have had harsh winters the price of salt has increased between 12 and 40 percent the following year,” Mike Bevis, the city’s chief procurement officer, wrote in a council memo. “As such, we anticipate that the price of salt may increase substantially next year.”

Salty talk

One primary challenge is knowing when to apply salt — with one eye on the road conditions, and the other on salt supplies — and when it’s better not to bother. We already have seen that when it comes to road conditions, salt is not a cure-all. In open areas where high winds create drifts on roadways, it’s no help at all. And officials point out that during periods when temperatures dip below 20 degrees, it’s “less effective.” On 10 days during January, the mercury never made it above that mark, NWS data show.

Naperville has capacity to store up to 16,000 tons of salt in its two domes, which means it was able to store salt left over from past, milder winters, and take only part of what it bought through the state contract at the beginning of the season.

LaCloche said the city started the season with 14,000 tons left over from last year, so initially it only had to take 2,000 tons of the roughly 8,000 tons it bought from the state.

“Generally, we like to start (the season) at full capacity,” she said. “We budgeted $730,000 for salt.”

With the council’s approval this week, the additional salt needed will increase the expense by $58,649.

While the city awaits deliveries that have been held up because of the shortage, plans call for blending salt with sand, to make the remaining reserves go farther. LaCloche acknowledged that other municipalities may have been hit harder by the regional salt shortage.

“We’ve been lucky to kind of stave it off,” she said Friday morning, noting that the impact of the salt scarcity is now hitting close to home. “We’ve ordered it. It’s just not coming in. The deliveries are not coming.”

The city has received just 4,600 tons of the supplemental 10,000 tons it ordered, she said.

“Our supply isn’t where we want it to be, so just looking at the forecast, we know that right now that we need to add sand,” LaCloche said.

Naperville is far from alone in its need to be salt-stingy. The city of Aurora last week issued a press release warning residents that it will be salting the roads judiciously as it cares for the city’s 2,100 lane miles. The release said “the use of salt for the foreseeable future will be focused on primary streets with very conservative salting taking place in residential areas.”

“The residential streets are very likely to remain snow covered in the event of more snow, but they will be drivable …” the release went on to say.

Plowing ahead

The city appears to be succeeding overall in keeping the roadways drivable. Policy places a hierarchy of sorts on the process, with heavily traveled arterial routes taking top priority, followed by secondary feeder roads, then side streets.

“Cul-de-sacs are typically the last streets to be plowed, which I understand,” said David Wentz, a City Council member who lives on one of the city’s 1,200 cul-de-sacs, just southwest of the downtown. “What I’ve found is the service has been pretty dependable, except when it’s gotten brutally cold.”

When the biggest blizzard to strike the area in decades came — beginning three years ago Saturday, burying Naperville under 18 inches of snow by the following day — many residents on cul-de-sacs complained about the long wait for plows.

“There’s always that backlash that they pay taxes, just like everybody else on the through roads,” said Councilman Bob Fieseler, who lives on a cul-de-sac on the city’s southeast side and said the response has improved since the big storm of 2011.

The courts usually are cleared by contractors using pickup trucks equipped with front plows, in part because a smaller vehicle is more agile on the tight radius. Larger machinery scrapes a wider swath and is better on the main roads.

Wentz appreciates the need to weigh whether conditions warrant expending resources for plowing, particularly when icy winds blow at 30 miles per hour or more. It’s not always an easy call, though.

“I understand that perhaps there’s times when the city plowing trucks wonder whether it’s optimal conditions to actually be snow plowing,” Wentz said. “But they have to be out there, particularly when there are blizzard conditions, and especially white-out conditions.”

Check, please

The costs of battling winter are substantial. Many of the 31 weather events that so far have called for the city to plow or de-ice, or both, have fallen on weekends. That has translated to some $490,000 in virtually unavoidable overtime expenses.

While those circumstances put more money in employees’ pockets, LaCloche said the hard work is also wearing them out.

“We were hoping January would come to an end, and February wouldn’t start the same way,” she said. “But it looks like it’s going to start out with a bang.”

An interactive plowing map launched by the city two years ago has provided residents with a way to find out where the plows are, where they’ve been and where they’re headed. The site has seen plenty of traffic this season, drawing nearly 3,500 hits so far.

“January 5th was really our highest day. We had 800 visits that day,” LaCloche said.

Fieseler sees the online amenity as helpful in a town that likes to be able to get around.

“In Naperville, people accept inconvenience if they know what causes it, and when it’ll be relieved,” Fieseler said. “They’ll handle it for about a day.”