Government

Last winter hammered Iowa street crews. Why they're hopeful a normal salt supply will be enough this year.

Cedar Rapids streets department heavy equipment operator Tony Wilson scoops a salt and sand mixture for loading into a c
Cedar Rapids streets department heavy equipment operator Tony Wilson scoops a salt and sand mixture for loading into a city truck at the City Services Building in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Eastern Iowa cities grappled with low salt supplies last year as crews worked thousands of overtime hours to clear streets after higher-than-average snowfall.

Even so, many budgets this year for salt and overtime pay will remain similar to the past, as operation managers rely on historical averages to plan for the 2019-20 winter season.

Salt supplies across Iowa ran low during last year’s unrelenting winter. The Iowa Legislature approved an additional $8.7 million for salt for the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Cedar Rapids received more than 25 inches of snow in January 2019, 6 inches more than normal. Iowa City got 26 inches of snow, 9 inches above normal.

The big challenge Cedar Rapids faced was that once it started snowing in January, it didn’t seem to stop for a month and a half, said Mike Duffy, the city’s streets superintendent.

The city used 12,000 tons of salt last year, 3,000 more than its annual average, spending $900,000 on salt.

This year, the city again purchased its typical 9,000 tons of salt despite the strain of last winter.

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Duffy was unable to say how many overtime hours were worked to clear the roads or how much overtime pay was spent during the winter because the amounts are wrapped up in one annual overtime budget for the entire city.

The city — along with the other municipalities in Iowa — orders salt through the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Iowa DOT then bids for the amount of salt in April. This year, nine vendors were awarded bids. Cities are responsible for communicating with the vendor supplying their salt each year.

Craig Bargfrede, winter operations administrator with Iowa DOT, said another challenge that impacted salt supplies last year was vendors that struggled with deliveries because they, too, were fighting snow-packed and icy roads.

Some of the vendors that tried to transport their product by barge on the Mississippi River were further impacted by flooding, he said.

“The Mississippi was so high that it wasn’t until almost the middle of July that the river had gone down enough to allow barge traffic through,” he said.

Salt storage sheds were finally replenished by the beginning of October. “In a perfect world, our sheds would be filled back up to 100 percent capacity before we go into summer construction season,” Bargfrede said.

Jerad Kelley, operations superintendent with the Linn County Secondary Road Department, said although the county didn’t run out of salt, it was getting close.

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As a result, the county increased its salt order 14 percent this year to 2,325 tons at $80.87 a ton to replace its depleted stock. Last year, the county paid $78.77 a ton.

The $2 per ton difference “doesn’t impact the budget greatly,” Kelley said, since the county doesn’t order as much salt as Cedar Rapids.

The county has already received 80 percent of its salt order this year to avoid any delivery issues, Kelley said. It can take up to 110 percent of its order — leaving some wiggle room.

Brock Holub, superintendent of streets and traffic engineering in Iowa City, said the city budgeted $250,000 for salt and spent $295,000 last year. The winter operations budget is based on a five-year average.

The city amended its budget last year to purchase more salt and to pay for more employee overtime, which doubled from $40,000 to $80,000 with a total of 2,200 hours in overtime worked.

“That’s the nature of winter, unfortunately. You’re not going to not treat roads. It’s a public safety thing,” Holub said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our staff and their dedication to serve the public.”

Even though a budget adjustment was needed last year, Holub said the city again budgeted for $250,000 in salt.

“Just because last year was extremely bad doesn’t mean we automatically budget for that. We look at the history of what we’ve done and try to ‘guesstimate,’” he said.

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The Iowa DOT also “blew way past” its annual salt usage, using 230,000 tons across the state as opposed to the annual average of 140,000 tons, Bargfrede said.

This year, it contracted for 198,000 tons of salt, a little over the annual usage, not including the salt contracted for cities, counties and other municipalities.

While Bargfrede couldn’t say how many overtime hours were worked last year, he said it definitely was higher than in the past, in part because of the high number of snow events that happened on weekends and holidays.

Even so, the Iowa DOT is not adjusting its budget to reflect last year, maintaining a $46 million budget for winter operations.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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