Road salt has cost RI $28 million since 2009

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The good news for Rhode Island taxpayers is the cost of road salt is dramatically lower than it was five years ago.

The bad news: the frigid temperatures associated with this week’s post-New Year’s nor’easter means the state will likely have to use more of it to try and keep the roads safe.

Rhode Island has spent $28.3 million on road salt – or sodium chloride – since 2009, according to records from the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT). That amounts to roughly 413,000 tons of salt purchased during those years.

RIDOT spokesperson Rose Amoros said the state has been more efficient in how it applies the salt.

“There has been a decline due to adjustments that we have made in-house, such as GPS and more precise metering systems to better track which areas need treatment,” Amoros said in an email. “These tools are more environmentally friendly and help us reduce the overall cost to the taxpayers.”

The state purchased 101,000 tons of salt in 2009 for 354 so-called “storm hours,” and 86,157 tons of salt in 2013 for 482 hours.

Amoros said salt becomes less efficient but is still able to do its job when temperatures sink below 15 degrees, but it is still able to do its job – which is to lower the point where water freezes – when the mercury dips to 6 below zero.

“In these cases, we have to increase the salt application rate or frequency, in addition to plowing, to improve the roadway conditions,” Amoros said.

The cost of salt has dropped significantly since 2009, when taxpayers spent roughly $81 a ton, for a total of $8.2 million. The price dipped to $56 a ton last year, for a total of $4.8 million. The cost in 2013 was up $2 a ton from the prior year.

“It can be the most expensive part of our whole operation,” said Joe Baker, head of highway and bridge maintenance for RIDOT. “Prices recently have relatively stabilized … like the price of diesel fuel. It’s a commodity.”

The nor’easter is predicted to be a slow-moving system and is expected to drop upwards of 12 inches of snow in certain parts of the region. The duration of the storm means city and towns will have to keep workers on the clock longer to keep up with the snowfall over the two days.

But Pawtucket DPW Director Lance Hill said it could be worse.

“If this storm had happened on Friday night, it would have been a lot more expensive,” Hill said, because crews who work on the weekend are eligible for overtime pay.

Financially speaking, cities and towns said they can weather a big storm right now.

Not including the current storm, Cranston has spent only $106,000 of its budgeted $635,000 for storm cleanup for 2013-14. And only $34,000 of that was spent on overtime so far.

“Right now it has been a pretty tame winter,” Cranston Mayor Allan Fung said. “We’re being judicious because it is going to be a long-lasting storm and even now many of the guys worked the full day, so we’re going to send them home then call them back when the storm intensifies.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @white_tim

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