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Stormy January taxes Westmoreland County road crews, salt supplies

| Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

With about 7 more inches of snow in January than average and almost twice than normal as much snow since October, road salt supplies in the area have been taxed along with equipment and public works crews.

According to the National Weather Service, the average snowfall recorded at Pittsburgh International Airport is 11.5 inches for January, but this January 17.9 inches fell, said meteorologist Rich Kane.

Beginning Oct. 1, the average seasonal snow total is about 22.3, while this year's total stands at 42.3 inches, Kane said, adding that December's snowfall was 15 inches compared with the average of 8.3 inches.

“The last two months we've been above normal, and that would explain why salt is at a premium,” he said.

Some municipalities have used their average tonnage of salt that usually lasts for a whole winter with February looming, while Unity, Ligonier Township and Latrobe public works officials have had to order more salt.

“This winter has been brutal,” said Unity Supervisor Mike O'Barto. “They can't get it to us quick enough.”

Derry Borough Council President Joe Morton said crews have been able to keep salt on hand for the borough's 13 miles of roads, but they are keeping a close eye on supplies.

“The deliveries have been a bit slow, which is understandable,” he said.

Each of the municipalities use the state-affiliated provider program called COSTARS, which requires officials to estimate how much salt will be needed through the winter, then purchase between 60 percent to 140 percent of that amount.

Unity crews have spread about 5,200 tons of salt on the township's 152 miles of roads, with O'Barto estimating they could use about 8,000 by the end of the season.

He is concerned that increasing costs may hurt the budget for warmer weather months.

“The more money you spend on salt and treating roads, that's money you may not have for paving. You'd have to cut back,” O'Barto said.

The township usually uses about 6,200 tons of road salt, he said. Workers are sent to plow roads even when an inch falls to try to avoid using salt as much as possible, or they use anti-skid gravel, depending on the road and its traffic.

Derry Township uses a similar tactic with four or five mix combinations, including ash on some rural routes, which are helpful in the sub-zero temperatures of last month.

In January, the National Weather Service recorded five days with a minimum temperature below zero, which is the usual total for the entire calendar year, Kane said.

Latrobe pretreats its salt with liquid calcium to help stretch its effectiveness and leave a residue that continues working after roads have been plowed, said public works director Joe Bush.

Each municipality is spending about $53 per ton through the distribution program and may be stretching annual budgets that will have to account for next winter's snows in November and December.

“It's just an old-fashioned winter we haven't had in awhile,” said Paul Fry, Ligonier public works director.

The borough has 16 miles of roads and usually budgets for about 200 tons of salt. It has used just about that much this winter, recently receiving a 75-ton shipment.

Prior to that, the borough cut back by salting only intersections and hills, Fry said.

Derry Township Supervisor Vince DeCario said the snow has stretched over multiple days, instead of dropping in one or two major storms.

“We're not getting a big snowstorm, but we're getting 2 to 3 inches every day, and it's adding up,” he said.

The township, which maintains 127 miles of roads, usually uses about 1,900 tons of salt, but DeCario anticipates needing more than that.

“Hopefully the worst is over with,” he said.

Ligonier Township crews mix salt with anti-skid gravel with a ratio of about 50/50, said Supervisor Tim Komar, and they still have used about 650 tons of salt this season. The township normally uses about 800 tons on its 100 miles of roads.

“I look at the weather, anticipate the use and try to keep some in transit,” he said.

Latrobe also planned another shipment of about 150 tons last week after using 900 tons, Bush said.

Usually, Latrobe uses about 1,000 tons during an average winter, but Bush predicts pushing this year's budget.

“There's a few years that we're over and a few years that we're under,” he said.

This is the first year the city has participated in the COSTARS program instead of buying from the Indiana-Westmoreland Council of Governments, so Latrobe has had a small savings on the same amount of salt at $60 per ton last year, Bush said.

“Even though we're using more salt this year, in all probability it's not going to cost us as much” when compared with last year, he said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or sfederoff@tribweb.com.

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