January 3

‘Old fashioned, cold Maine winter’ drains Augusta-area resources

Public works crews in the capital area are using salt and sand more quickly this year in an effort to help drivers get around town.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Herb Whittier has seen a lot in his 44 winters of removing snow from Monmouth’s roads, but he strains to recall another winter with a run of storms and frigid temperatures like the ones that have kept public works crews busy, and bundled up, in central Maine this season.

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SLICK ROADS: Mechanic Rick Merrill fixes a nozzle on a liquid calcium chloride dispenser on the back of a plow truck on Friday in the garage at the John Charest Public Works Facility in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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“All the years I’ve done this, it’s tough to recall a cold spell like this,” said Whittier, Monmouth’s public works director. “Maybe 30 or 40 years ago, when I first started, I remember some times like it, but not day after day like this.”

Whittier said the Christmas week ice storm decimated the town’s supply of sand and salt. He said crews have used some 2,000 yards of sand trying to bring some traction for motorists to use on Monmouth roads already this winter. Normally, they wouldn’t have used more than 1,500 yards at this point.

It has been so cold parts of a pile of sand stored outside have frozen, so workers in Monmouth have had to sort through the pile with heavy equipment, putting frozen chunks to the side to get at the good stuff. Whittier said that’s another example of how the cold adds to the cost of doing business.

“Overtime hasn’t been too bad, but with sand and salt, we got killed in the ice storm,” Whittier said.

In Augusta, the ice storm of Dec. 21-23, followed by snowstorms and subzero temperatures that have prevented ice from thawing, have drained the city’s overtime budget and shrunken its stash of sand and salt.

Lesley Jones, public works director, said the department has already spent $30,000 of $114,000 budgeted for overtime for snow removal, or about 26 percent. Last year, all season, the city spent $77,000 in overtime for snow removal.

“It’s early in the winter, it has been a tough couple of weeks,” Jones said. “It looks like it’s going to be an old fashioned, cold Maine winter.”

Jones said about $50,000 of the $214,000 Augusta budgeted for sand and salt has been spent, or about 23 percent.

“Sand is the cheap part,” Jones said. “Sand is about $11 a yard. A mix, of sand and salt, costs about $37 a yard.”

In the recent cold weather, Augusta has been primarily spreading sand. It’s been too cold for salt to melt ice.

“One of the things that hasn’t made it easy for motorists is it’s so cold salt has been ineffective, so we’ve got some pretty slippery roads right now,” said Jones, noting some warmer temperatures this weekend might help that. “We’ve been trying to keep the hills really well sanded for now. Right now we’re loading the trucks up with 50 percent salt in hopes tomorrow, with warm weather, will be good for melting ice and we can get the roads in better shape.”

Jones is hopeful the city may get reimbursed for some of its storm expenses, if the Federal Emergency Management Agency declares the ice storm a disaster.

Whittier, too, said salt doesn’t melt ice very well below 15 or 20 degrees.

“Today we’ve been out scraping and sanding,” Whittier said Friday. “We’re not salting today, it’s too cold. We’re barely above zero.”

Hallowell City Manager Michael Starn said crews have definitely used more sand and salt than normal for this time of year.

“We’ve just been through December and we’re a few days into January and we’ve used a lot of our sand and a lot of our salt,” said Starn, who serves as the city’s road commissioner. “We’re not that much over budget, except on the sand. We stockpiled and thought we’d have some left over, but we’ve used most of it. About all you can do when ice forms, when it’s this cold, is put some sand on it.”

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