Government

Cost of winter's onslaught in Eastern Iowa piling up

Storms drive need for more road salt and overtime

Kevin McIntyre, lead streets worker for Cedar Rapids, said he takes pride in clearing the streets, treating them like they were his own. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Kevin McIntyre, lead streets worker for Cedar Rapids, said he takes pride in clearing the streets, treating them like they were his own. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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After wrapping up a 15.5-hour shift plowing streets in southeast Cedar Rapids at 6:30 a.m. one day last week, Kevin McIntyre, 60, shoveled his driveway and then his mom’s, slept for three hours and returned to his rig about 2:30 p.m. for another nine hours of pushing snow and slush.

Winter can mean a lot of work, but he said he doesn’t mind. He was hired for this, the money is nice and he values knowing his efforts help children get to school safely the morning after a big storm. He takes pride in clearing the streets like they were his own, he said.

While some still are shellshocked from a month of back-to-back-to-back brutal weather events — snow, ice, freezing rain and a polar vortex with temperatures dipping colder than Antarctica — he keeps it in perspective.

“To be honest, this is more of a typical winter than what we had the last few years,” said McIntyre, who has been a municipal snow plow driver for 26 years, “This is what winter in Iowa should look like.”

This winter, however, is shaping up to be one of the most costly in recent memory for municipalities and public agencies around Iowa. Between increases in supply needs like salt and sand, hauling snow mounds away from urban centers and paying overtime, material and budgets are being stretched thin.

David Cousins, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Davenport, said Cedar Rapids has had 35 inches of snow this winter, including 30.7 inches since Jan. 1. It’s more than a foot above the average winter snowfall of 20.9 inches, he said.

Not accounting for ice and other elements, the snow is the most since 55.6 inches in the 2007-08 winter, he said.

“It has been a tough winter, especially lately,” he said.

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In the past month and a half, McIntyre and approximately 90 colleagues in the streets, forestry and sewer divisions of the city have been working nearly around the clock. They’ve responded to seven all-plow events — the city’s highest level of response — and racked up 6,100 hours of overtime. The last two-week pay period, McIntyre alone accumulated 67 hours of overtime.

“We’ll be well over on overtime” compared with previous years, said Mike Duffy, the Cedar Rapids street operations manager.

Cedar Rapids has also burned through 12,000 tons of salt worth about $850,000, has about 1,750 tons remaining and another 5,000 tons on order. The city typically uses 9,000 tons in a winter.

While salt is available, delivery has been slow, Duffy said. Still, he does not anticipate salt supply becoming a critical situation. While sand use also is up, sand left over from the massive flood prevention efforts in 2016 has kept Cedar Rapids well supplied, he said.

Because of the late start this season to wintry conditions, the volume of supplies used are in line with what had been budgeted for the winter. But if storms persist, they could exceed the budget, he said.

By Sunday, city forces will have removed snow from downtown to a snow screening pad near the Sinclair levee four times, up from one time the past two winters.

“We’ve had the full year in 30 days,” Duffy said. “If winter goes an extra month, that’s when we’ll see the impact. That’s when this could go down as one of the most costly in history.”

Iowa City also is over budgeted hours for overtime and has been wrestling with salt deliveries.

Iowa City purchases salt from the Iowa Department of Transportation, said Brock Holub, superintendent of streets and traffic engineering.

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The city has to take at least 80 percent of the salt it ordered from the Iowa DOT, but can’t purchase more than 110 percent of what it ordered, Holub said.

“It’s actually a pretty small window if you think about it,” he said. “This one has been a rough winter, so most of us across the state are maxing out our salt contracts due to all that.”

Cities are all ordering salt at the same time so it’s coming in slowly.

“I would say we’re sitting OK,” Holub said. ”Normally we’d like to carry more salt over into the next year.”

He didn’t have an exact overtime count, but said some streets employees have been working up to 40 hours of overtime weekly.

For last Tuesday’s storm, the city needed 19 dump trucks to remove snow from downtown, which cost about $23,000. The city has gone through that process three times already this year, Holub said.

The streets department also has responded to five ice storms so far, which can be expensive because even though there’s little accumulation it takes more salt to treat roads.

Craig Bargfrede, winter operations administrator with the Iowa Department of Transportation, said the department created a winter severity index about 13 years ago. Using a combination of weather data like temperature, precipitation, type of precipitation and wind speed, the index will determine the severity of weather across the state.

“We’re on track to probably have the most severe winter that we’ve seen since we started recording and determining that index,” Bargfrede said. “You can sum it up with one word: bad.”

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Bargfrede said several factors have played into the severity of this winter, including several back-to-back events, frigid temperatures and a fluctuation between snow, rain and ice on several occasions.

“It really taxes the equipment and it taxes the staff,” he said. “We are ready for a break.”

All told, the state department operates just over 900 plow trucks and 24 tow plows — which consist of a second blade pulled behind a standard truck — spread across Iowa. The department employs about 1,000 full-time workers and has another roughly 550 part time seasonal employees.

Iowa DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry said that from Oct. 15 through Thursday, the state has logged 234,000 labor hours and applied 140,000 tons of salt, 29.9 million gallons of brine and 8,000 tons of sand. All told, that comes with a more than $27 million price tag.

The amount of salt applied so far this winter is at the high end of the department’s five-year average for an entire season, Bargfrede said.

He projected the department will go through another 70,000 to 75,000 tons before spring.

The state’s stockpiles will hold up, Bargfrede predicted, but some management of materials is necessary as crews relocate salt and sand to garages around the state that are running low.

“We’re not in dire straits, but we have felt the pressure,” he said.

But motorists need to be mindful of the state’s plow truck drivers — giving them enough room on the road and being patient, he said.

Statewide, the application of so much salt does present environmental concerns for some.

Last year, a U.S. Geological Survey found that some of the nation’s rivers and streams had higher salt concentrations and had become more alkaline in recent decades. Road salt has been partially to blame, according to the study.

Officials say Iowa’s chloride concentration has risen over the last several decades.

At The Eastern Iowa Airport, crews have been trying to keep ahead of the snow and ice events.

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“This has been a tough 30 days. We’ve had an unusually high number of icing events, which presents an added challenge when handling snow removal events,” Airport Director Marty Lenss said in an email.

While airlines manage their own crafts, the airport is responsible for runways, taxiways, aircraft ramps, terminal roads and parking lots. A mixture of dry and liquid de-icing products and fine sand all must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

So far this winter, the airport has used twice the usual amount of dry de-icing chemicals, three times as much sand and 30 percent more liquid de-icing chemicals. The airport also has had double the average number of hours worked so far this year.

“At this stage, we are looking forward to spring,” Lenss said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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