The Baltimore Sun

As state and local highway crews braced for the first storm of the new year, they took comfort in the fact that their budgets have plenty of money to handle it — and more.

Mild weather has kept the region's plows idle, salt sheds virtually untouched and ledgers in the black, public works officials say. If the trend continues, leftover money would be used to offset other government expenses or pay for road projects.

Crews began the waiting game Friday afternoon, as snow and sleet developed from southwest to northeast and temperatures slipped below freezing. Many roads, bridges and overpasses were treated with chemicals and salt brine before the expected precipitation was to begin.

With the region's forecast wavering between rain and snow, Anne Arundel County canceled all of Saturday's school-sponsored events. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore will be closed Saturday. And Franklin Square Hospital Center has canceled classes.

For highway administrators such as Baltimore County's James Lathe, the decision to call out crews "is the biggest headache of the job," said county Department of Public Works spokesman David Fidler. "As soon as he makes the call, money is being spent."

But so far this winter, the difficult decisions have been few and far between.

The State Highway Administration has used about $14 million of the $36 million budgeted for snow removal, much of it in Western Maryland, said agency spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar. That compares with $33 million spent by this time last year.

"The money we've spent includes pretreating highways with salt brine when appropriate for the forecast," she said. "We've had call-outs to be ready for several borderline forecasts — some have been a snow, some freezing rain or even just rain."

The state spent $125 million to clear roads in 2010 — the year of the back-to-back snowstorms — and $70 million last year.

At this point in winter, the region's usual snowfall total is about 2.3 inches, according to the National Weather Service. The snowiest January on record came in 1996, when 32.6 inches fell.

But typically, February is the region's budget-buster. Two years ago, 50 inches fell, and in 2003, 40.5 inches blanketed the area.

So the area's plowers and salters are reluctant to jinx their good luck this season by talking about it, even with an ice storm on the doorstep.

"I'm not personally looking forward to snow," said Edgar, laughing. "But if it happens, we'll be ready."

Salting a road costs three times as much per hour as plowing it because of the type of equipment and supplies involved, so Baltimore County officials were hoping for a quick changeover from ice to rain early Saturday morning, Fidler said.

The county budgeted $5.9 million "in seed money" for winter cleanup, said Fidler, "but we'll spend whatever it takes to keep the roads clear."

As of Friday, that fund had been tapped just once. A dusting two weeks ago cost $10,000 for a skeleton crew and so little salt that officials didn't even bother to top off the 52,000 tons stockpiled at 14 sites.

Two years ago, the county spent $20 million to clear the record snow from more than 2,600 miles of roads. Last year, it spent a little more than half that, Fidler said.

Baltimore's Department of Transportation has spent less than 5 percent of the $3.5 million budgeted.

In Howard County, where this season's budget is $845,750, crews have been dispatched only once — during the Oct. 29 snowfall — to spread de-icer and plow some roads in the western part of the county. Since the work was done during regular business hours when crews were available, it wasn't deducted from the snow-removal budget. (Many main roads in Howard and other counties are plowed by the state.)

"It was just a daily cost of doing business," said county spokesman Kevin Enright. "If you are looking for actual costs for de-icing or plowing snow this season, we don't have any — yet."

Last year at this time, Howard crews had handled seven storms costing $1.3 million, well in excess of the budgeted $840,250.

Anne Arundel pulls its snow-removal money from a contingency fund that contains $5.6 million, said spokesman Dave Abrams. The county spent $3.6 million last year and $14 million the year before.

Harford County hasn't taken a dime from its snow-removal budget of $1.47 million. Last year, it spent $1.6 million for the entire season.

Carroll County has spent $232,000 of the $1.75 million set aside for dealing with the aftermath of bad weather; half of it was used to buy salt and the other half was used for cleanup after Tropical Storm Lee, said budget director Ted Zaleski.

Money not spent on snow removal will be used for other things. In some localities, including Baltimore County, the money is returned to the general fund. The State Highway Administration typically closes the snow-removal ledger in April and will use any leftover money for safety projects and resurfacing this spring, Edgar said.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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