Piles of Road Salt

Mar 30, 2012


Local governments in Illinois find themselves in a good position this spring, as they take inventory of the road salt leftover from the mild winter.  But, WNIJ’s Mike Moen reports, road departments have little time to celebrate.

Outside the headquarters of DeKalb’s Street Operations Division, Assistant Public Works Director, Mark Espy, looks up at a large dome-like storage building filled with road salt.

"This bin will hold a thousand tons.  I remember about three years ago, we had a lot of small storms.  It was almost like thirty small storms, and when we looked at this bin in the spring, it was completely empty."

That’s not the case this spring.  The piles of road salt here almost touch the very top of the structure.  And, Espy still has one more purchase to make, in order for the city to meet the minimum requirement under the current contract with its supplier.

"I'm gonna try to shovel a little bit more in the door here, and then I'll probably on the blacktop area here I'll put the rest of it and then tarp it."

That last load Espy’s department will need to store will put DeKalb at 80-percent for purchases made under the deal it agreed to last year.  Illinois municipalities and counties try to work out their road salt contracts when the weather begins to warm up.  Many of them have the state do the bidding on their behalf to take advantage of buying in bulk.  The process calls for the local departments to buy between 80 and 120 percent of the amount of road salt specified in their order.  With DeKalb at the low end, Espy says his department stands to save about $90 thousand dollars in its snow removal budget for the current fiscal year:

"It's fairly broad.  At a time when the city's budgets have been in dire straits the past couple years.  It's not just gonna be salt savings.  Our overtime should be down a little bit.  Fuel consumption is gonna be down for our trucks that didn't run as many hours on the roads. "

Across town at the County Highway department, DeKalb County Engineer, Nathan Schwartz, says they also had the luxury of buying low this past winter.  But, Schwartz and other public works officials don’t have long to bask in the glow of saving taxpayers money.  Orders for next winter are due.  And, Schwartz says low snowfall totals from the previous year don’t necessarily result in savings for the winter season that lies ahead.  It takes just one major storm in late November or early December to put a big dent in a full supply.  Schwartz says that means you don’t want to skimp on road salt by placing a smaller order:

"This past winter, every expectation would have been 'it's going to be a normal winter.'  The winter before, we had the February Second storm.  There was no reason to expect we would have had a mild winter.  So, going into this next winter, we would expect to have a normal winter, and we will be ordering the usual number of salt."

Schwartz says in typical years, late season orders are also placed before prices go up. 

Officials for DeKalb County and the city of DeKalb say they’re fortunate they have just about enough storage space to cover the excess road salt.  Other public works departments aren’t as lucky.  Many have been left scrambling to find additional space.  Neighboring communities usually help, but with a large number of them at full capacity, options are limited. 

Guy Tridgell is a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.  He says they’ve run into a similar problem at the state level.

"We're having discussions at I-DOT with our salt suppliers to see what options might be available as far as our vendors storing some of the salt for us."

But, Tridgell says it’s a good problem to have.  He says extra costs associated with summer storage pale in comparison to additional orders of road salt.