Utah storm fighting costs mount, but budget still has traction
The recent series of major snow storms in Utah tested the patience of road-weary commuters and clogged streets with mounds of dirty ice. And now it's icing government budgets as well.
The Utah Department of Transportation budgeted $22 million for weather-related activity between October 2012 and April 2013, according to UDOT spokesman John Gleason. The most recent figures available show that $15.4 million of that pot has already been spent.
Gleason said UDOT spends about $1 million for a large, state-wide storm, which he defined as a period of more or less continuous precipitation. That sum pays for snowplow drivers, salt and grit for roads, and keeps UDOT vehicles fueled up, among other things. But UDOT officials feel good about the budget, he said.
"Obviously it's a guessing game as to how many more storms we're going to get but we're actually in line with where we projected we would be," Gleason said.
Still, he noted that recent conditions have been unusual. He pointed to the recent freezing rain storm as something that hasn't happened in decades. During that storm, crews placed sand-like grit on roads to increase traction. The grit is less environmentally friendly than salt because it turns to dust and gets into the air, so crews try to vacuum it up later.
During more typical storms, crews use salt from the west desert on roads, a local source that helps keep budgets reasonable, Gleason said.
Last year's drier winter allowed UDOT to come in under budget, with a mere $17 million spent clearing roads. This year, the recent big storms have pushed spending to nearly that much already. In the snowy year of 2005, UDOT went over budget by roughly $7 million, Gleason said.
Since October, UDOT has changed out 2,621 snowplow blades at a cost of $849,859 and spent $2.5 million on salt. Gleason said UDOT has 510 snowplows in the state working around the clock, and 12,343 hours have been clocked driving them.
Salt Lake City spokesman Art Raymond could not immediately provide a number for how much the city has spent on snow removal, but said all the money allocated for purchasing salt has been spent. The city's 45 snowplows also ran day and night, and dump trucks had to be brought in at night to haul snow out of downtown to vacant city land.
The storms have exacted a psychological toll as well. Waking to yet another snow-filled morning was almost too much for Sage Lepalla, 31, who lives on 2300 East near 3300 South.
"It's just seems to be unrelenting. Every day it's like this obstacle course. Even today I woke up and said, 'not again,' " said Lepalla, who recently got stuck in her driveway while trying to get to a test at the University of Utah.
Fortunately, a neighbor she didn't even know came to her rescue, pushing her car out of the snow and then shoveling the driveway for her. She never got his name but shared her story with Tribune readers, as did a number of other people who either were aided by, or became, good Samaritans.
While Wednesday brought more snow, and high winds to some parts of the state, a break was in sight. According to the National Weather Service, snowfall was due to taper off and give way to clearer skies and slightly warmer temperatures by midday Thursday a forecast expected to continue into the weekend.
Commuter traffic Wednesday morning was slowed yet again, but the number of crashes was down: As of early Wednesday afternoon, UHP troopers had responded to 40 crashes in Salt Lake and Utah counties combined, along with 56 slideoffs. UHP Cpl. Todd Johnson said the frequency of crashes tapered off after noon Wednesday.
Weather also was considered a factor in a Wednesday afternoon school bus crash in Trenton. The Cache County Sheriff's Office said that the three children, bus driver and two aides were not injured. Snow drifts on the side of the road covered a ditch, which the driver slid into, causing the bus to land on its side.
For skiers, the unrelenting snow has been cause for celebration. As of late Wednesday morning, 24-hour storm totals at area resorts ranged from inches to feet of new snow. Among the deepest measurements were 28 inches at Eagle Point, 18 at Snowbird, 17 at Alta, 13 at Wolf Creek and 11 at Snowbasin.
While flurries were expected in mountain areas overnight, little new accumulation was expected. The Weather Service issued an avalanche advisory on Wednesday that warned the recent storm had led to dangerous conditions in the northern Utah mountains of the Bear River, Western Uintas and Manti-Skyline Plateau ranges.
Dangerous avalanche conditions existed especially in steep terrain and in mountain valleys that received the most snow. Natural and human triggered avalanches were likely, the advisory states.
Avalanche danger was rated "high" for the mountain slopes and backcountry near Logan on Wednesday, and "considerable" for most of the rest of the state's mountains. The danger for potentially deadly snowslides would remain elevated on Thursday as well, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
Winter by the numbers
So far this fiscal year, which began in July, the Utah Department of Transportation has spent approximately $15.4 million on weather-related expenses. Major categories include:
$4.9 million • 12,343 hours of labor
$2.5 million • 94,242 tons of salt
$1.3 million • 388,940 gallons of fuel
$849,859 • 2,621 snowplow blades
Source: Utah Department of Transportation