Salt: A 'road diet' for governments - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Salt: A 'road diet' for governments

Flickr user SDOT Photos (CC)

Look like enough road salt? Seems there are multiple benefits for governments to do more with less.

Our winter 2016 series on road salt looks at how these little crystals affect our region, from their impact on our waterways to their implications for government efficiency.

The February snow will be here sooner or later, so let’s talk about road salt. No salt, no clear roads or sidewalk routes. No clear routes, no goods being shipped, no people arriving to work, no children walking or riding the bus to learn the day’s lesson.

In the City that Works, Chicago is known for being on top of snow removal and salting, ranking number two in the country. Residents feel safer forging ahead with their daily activities despite a snowstorm if they witness the scraping of plows and scattering of salt in their neighborhoods.

Road salt is a necessary part of our transportation infrastructure system during wintry months in the Midwest—and surprisingly other places, like our nation’s capital, which has been getting inundated with snow these days. Salt is a main ingredient in the public service promise to keep travel conditions safe.

However, we shouldn’t take these public safety benefits, well…with a grain of salt! Given tight municipal budgets and the sheer amount of salt being used in recent winter seasons (370,000 tons at a price tag of $30 million for the City of Chicago during the 60-inch 2013-14 snow season) it seems we could be underestimating the impact of this commodity on our local governments and taxpayers.

For many municipalities, salt needed for the winter season after Jan. 1, 2016, will be charged against the 2016 fiscal year budget. Which does not yet exist. Enter center stage: Illinois budget impasse, month eight. It is hard enough for local governments to plan how much salt to buy, with demand varying each season depending on weather severity. Lacking the funds to even purchase salt is reason enough to reexamine how communities are managing the salt they currently have.

This story has many protagonists, as it turns out. In order to pinpoint road salt users, we have to account for the multiple, uncoordinated private sector plowing services, your neighbor next door shoveling away, as well as the state agencies responsible for highways and tollways, counties and municipal public works departments—all using road salt.

Salt needed for this winter will be charged against the 2016 fiscal year budget. Which does not yet exist.

Without the money to just keep purchasing more and more, managing local road salt becomes all about coordinating disparate efforts and maximizing current supplies. What an eye-opener! The salt we all know and love/hate can play such a bigger role in the way local government operates, actually being a conduit for more efficient and effective government services. We need more of that.

If that isn’t reason enough, there is another major impetus for improving the effectiveness of local road salting that isn’t inherently about finance or government efficiency, but the environment. If you recall from high school chemistry class, road salt breaks down as sodium chloride. Turns out chloride does not readily dissolve in water, instead causing harm to aquatic life and plants.

Chloride concentrations in Illinois waterways are on the rise, including many water bodies in the Chicago region. It’ll come as no surprise that this spike coincides with road salting season.

I’m curious to explore the impact of chloride on the environment and our local water resources, which I’ll take up in the next post of this series. Suffice it to say, there is regulatory pressure on local governments to improve road salt management and reduce chloride water pollution.

Given these financial and environmental forces at work, there is definitely a ripe opportunity for governments to be smarter with the salt we’ve got. Encouragingly, we can already point to a handful of municipalities taking the lead on smarter salting!

Enter center stage: Illinois budget impasse, month eight.

At the South Suburban College in Oak Forest, Ill., Nancy Burrows offers workshops geared towards helping public and private agencies in the region improve their snow and ice management programs while reducing the amount of salt they use. From her perspective, “New processes and technologies will continue to change the way we deal with winter operations. The public works professionals already get it—that we need to more efficiently apply and store salt to reduce chloride in our waterways.”

Improving how salt is applied to the roads and the best way to store the leftover supply are just two types of changes that communities are experimenting with. Here is a slew of other suggestions from the Conservation Foundation to enhance the ice-breaking power of salt and do more with less. Imagine all of the options not even on this list!

  • Salt storage and handling, including adding liquid deicer to stockpiles to reduce the “bounce and scatter” of road salt
  • Calibrating equipment to determine that the right amount of salt is actually being applied
  • Weather forecasting
  • Pavement temperature readings to inform equipment operators of rate at which to apply salt
  • Application rates
  • Pre-wetting, pre-treating, anti-icing techniques
  • snow plow speed

In DuPage County, a coalition formed in 2005 called the DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup, which the Conservation Foundation administers. The group is making big strides in protecting watersheds from chloride pollution. Known for their research and practical trainings hosted by the DuPage County Division of Transportation, this group is versed in all the steps that go into road salting.

This insider knowledge helps to pinpoint where the inefficiencies are as well as the most cost-effective measures to improve salting practices. One of which is simply, efficiency! The DuPage workgroup echoes the findings from a study by neighboring Michigan showing that improving salt application efficiency by 25 percent has effectively created an additional 150 tons of salt in storage. More salt, for free, just like that!

Combining better management with the power of collaboration is also on the minds of some local governments. The City of St. Charles sees the opportunity cost of continuing to budget almost $370,000 a year on more than 4,500 tons of road salt. For Chris Minick, the city’s director of finance, sharing the cost of road salt is a potential all-around win. He told me that the City of St. Charles “would certainly be open to investigating a joint purchasing effort with other municipalities or agencies to achieve some economies of scale and lower costs for all.”

And, St. Charles is not alone. In July 2015, the Northeastern Illinois Government Shared Services Survey report produced by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus highlighted that municipalities already sharing services such as asphalt patching and landscaping are also interested in expanding to new areas such as road salt.

MPC is pushing for this type of collaboration through Transform Illinois, a statewide coalition established in 2015 to improve the efficiency of government service delivery. If we can make this happen with road salt, imagine the possibilities for governments to tackle even larger challenges in delivering higher-quality services in more cost-effective ways!

Given our state budget crisis stalling local funds, and the global climate change crisis making it harder to anticipate our region’s seasonal weather, communities need better government coordination and management decisions—even seemingly small ones about salt—to be capable of weathering any storm. The onus for change falls on local governments to shake up our understanding of road salt and explore new approaches that maintain road safety while reducing costs and chloride along the way.

Curious about other aspects of road salt and Chicagoland? Read the whole series.


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