Mild winter spells savings for city, county and state highway coffers

The front end blade for a Houston County plow truck and the motorgraders in the background have seen little action so far this winter, as the mild, nearly snowless winter has meant quite a savings in snow removal costs this winter. Photo by Charlie Warner

By Charlie Warner
Argus News Editor

The old saying, “if you can’t think of anything else to talk about, talk about the weather,” certainly has been holding true this winter.

And depending on your likes and dislikes, this has either been a very nice winter or a terrible one.

For the first time in five years, Southeast Minnesota experienced a brown Christmas. And at this writing, it appears as if New Year’s Day will be “sans snow” as well.

The lack of snow is not the only aspect of our “non-winter” folks are conversing about. For most, the record-breaking warm weather has put a smile on many a face.

Several records were set across the state the day after Christmas. Those records included:

•  52 degrees at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. This  broke the previous record of 51 degrees set in 1936.

• 49 degrees at St. Cloud, which topped the previous record of 48 degrees, set in 1905.

• 43 degrees in Duluth, which beat the previous record high for the day of 42, set in 1877 and 1908.

This year’s brown December is a drastic change to December 2010, when a record 41.3 inches fell in Rochester, according to the National Weather Service in La Crosse. So far this year, 6.4 inches have fallen, but little of that remains, due to the warm temps. In a normal December we receive 11.6 inches of snow.

The non-winter has been a real plus for city, county and state agencies, as the costs for snow removal have been much lower than last year, which was the fourth snowiest winter on record.

According to Caledonia City Clerk/Administrator Jennifer Feely, compared to snow removal expenses in November and December of 2010, the city has saved approximately $9,000 in manpower, materials and motor fuel for the same period this year.

Houston County coffers are much better off, thanks to Mother nature’s reprieve so far this winter season as well.

According to County Highway Engineer Brian Pogodzinski, county trucks have been dispatched nine times so far this season to clear the roadways of snow twice and apply sand and salt due to freezing rain and/or frost seven times.

Looking back in his records, Pogodzinski reported last year county trucks had been sent out 22 times in November and December.

On average, county trucks are dispatched about 50 times a winter at a cost of between $12,000 and $14,000 per event. The cost varies depending if the event occurs on a weekend when more overtime is incurred.

Last winter the county spent $584,076 keeping the roadways clear and safe. The previous winter the cost was $719,821. Pogodzinski said the difference was the inflated cost of salt in 2009.

“We’ve sent trucks out about half as many times as a normal winter so far this year,” Pogodzinski noted. “And we’re about 40 percent through the winter season.”

If the long-range forecast holds true, Pogodzinski anticipates the county will realize significant savings this winter. Besides a dramatic decrease in the number of events so far this winter, the warm temps have been an additional savings.  The county hasn’t had to put down as much salt to rid the roadways of slippery spots.

Although no concrete figures were provided, Mn/DOT Public Affairs Director Beth Petrowske reported less snow means fewer plows on the roads and a big savings.

Petrowske said fuel costs are one of the biggest costs and not running the plows helps on the wear and tear of the plows, which cuts down on equipment maintenance costs as well.

Mn/DOT is also saving on costs for salt, sand and overtime.

Petrowske  noted last year Mn/DOT had a lot of overtime because many of the storms happened over the weekends and holidays. So far this year they haven’t had much overtime at all.

Mn/DOT crews have been busy however. The money Mn/DOT has saved on clearing winter roads is going towards projects that were put off due to the government shutdown and heavy snow in previous years.

Some of those activities include tree trimming along the roadways, clearing plugged drainage pipes and repairing equipment.

And will the mild weather continue?

Winter conditions in the upper tier of US states are often determined by the strengthening of pressure systems around the Arctic. When pressure systems are weak, cold air that is normally trapped flows southward, resulting in extreme winter conditions for the US and Western Europe, explained Angela Fritz, an atmospheric scientist with the Weather Underground, a media outlet located in San Francisco that specializes in long-range forecasting.

While that was the case for the past two winters, Arctic high-pressure systems this year are “allowing the cold air to get trapped up north,” said Fritz. “Last year, the refrigerator door was left open. This year, the refrigerator door was left closed.”

Due to the unpredictability of the system, meteorologists know only that the milder temperatures will continue through mid-January. But even without the colder air, snowflakes are possible.

“The Arctic Oscillation doesn’t mean we won’t get snow. It means, in the grand scheme of things, we won’t get an extreme winter like we did in 2010 and 2011,” Fritz added.

You can contact Charlie Warner at [email protected]