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Murrysville road crew faces salt shortage

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Bob Bell is ready to move to Florida.

In his 35 years in public works, he never has seen a winter as relentless and unforgiving as this year's. Between “nuisance snows” — dustings that can't be plowed but require a full salting, ice storms and a regionwide road-salt shortage — he's ready to bid this season goodbye.

“This is the worst I've ever seen it,” said Bell, public works director for Murrysville. “This is the first year I can remember that we can't get the salt.”

Bell's dilemma is reflected across Westmoreland County, where larger municipalities struggle to get enough salt to make roads passable. Some, like Hempfield, have borrowed from the county or state. Meanwhile, communities such as Murrysville are diluting their supply with “anti-skid,” a solid chemical that helps vehicles gain traction on slippery roads, to stretch the salt supply as long as possible.

So far, Bell is behind by 980 tons of salt. He has been waiting for three weeks for a 1,250-ton shipment but has gotten only 270 tons.

To put that in perspective, it takes about 130 tons to salt the 150 miles of road in the municipality during each storm.

“It's like firemen putting out a fire without water,” Bell said. “I don't have any saltshakers left even.”

PennDOT is helping by lending municipalities salt, said Valerie Petersen, a spokeswoman for District 12, which is responsible for 9,000 miles of roads in Westmoreland, Washington, Greene and Fayette counties. She said PennDOT has 20,000 tons of salt in storage and is waiting for 13,000 tons more.

“Remember, winter started around Thanksgiving, and we've had 10 weeks of unrelenting snow, followed by ice and have another five to six good, solid weeks of winter left,” she said.

The salt isn't flowing as freely to Murrysville. The last mostly full shipment Bell received was Jan. 24, when he received 700 of the 750 tons he ordered. Since then, his shipments have been relatively small – 23 tons, 113 tons or 159 tons.

The salt shed in Murrysville is down to about 300 tons, which Bell estimates will get the municipality through another storm. But residents and drivers aren't going to be happy once it all melts, thanks to the amount of “anti-skid” that's mixed in, he said.

“There's going to be a lot of stones on the road,” Bell said. “We're keeping the roads up, but sooner or later, if it doesn't break, I don't know what the answer is going to be.”

Public works departments are getting a short respite this week. After Sunday's snow, forecasters didn't expect any precipitation until at least Friday.

With five weeks until spring, the region already surpassed the average snowfall for a season, according to the National Weather Service in Moon. As of Monday, the Pittsburgh area had seen 49.6 inches of snow. Typically by mid-February, 26.2 inches have fallen, and an average season results in 41.9 inches of snow.

Road crews have been working hard, despite the salt shortage. Bell credits local crews' hard work during the past few weeks to keeping school in session as much as possible.

“Hats off to these guys. It's the guys on the road that make this work,” Bell said. “Me, I'd rather it snowed six inches. That nuisance snow is what's costing money.”

Trib Total Media staff writer Richard Gazarik contributed to this report. Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

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