The picture of ice-free roads with snow plowed to the sides could change drastically, if Carroll County cannot replenish its supply of rock salt.
Throughout the winter storms, Carroll's snowplows have spread nearly 10,000 tons of rock salt to melt the ice. About 1,800 tons remain of the original supply, but one more good storm - like the one predicted to hit late tonight - will use most of that, said Benton Watson, director of the county's Bureau of Roads.
The National Weather Service predicts a 60 percent chance of precipitation, with snow and freezing rain likely in the early morning hours tomorrow in Carroll County.
During a typical snowstorm, crews will load 50 dump trucks at least twice with 10 tons of salt each time in each truck. In the more severe storms, the trucks make three sweeps of their salting routes.
"Absolutely concerned" at the critically low levels of salt, Watson said he is unsure of future deliveries from his supplier at the port of Baltimore.
"It doesn't look hopeful," he said. "My best understanding is our supplier is at a very low point. Salt gets harder and harder to obtain during long winters on the East Coast."
With several weeks of winter remaining, the county has to consider alternatives, such as sand or fine-stone mixes. Those mixes can provide traction on the roads but will not de-ice them.
"We are looking for alternatives to salt, but those will make a difference in everybody's level of service," Watson said. "People are used to having the ice melted and driving on bare roads."
Watson has exceeded his storm budget and is spending money set aside in a contingency fund. The cleanup has drained the county's $850,000 storm fund.
The alternatives being considered are less costly than rock salt.
The county purchases rock salt from International Salt Co. at a cost of $37 a ton. Watson is waiting for a price on a recycled mixture that he can purchase locally. Stone mixes from area quarries sell for about $8 a ton.
Because of the shortage, the county's public school system, which accounts for about 800 tons of Carroll's spent salt supply, has created a priority list of areas to salt. The thawing and refreezing means crews must salt several mornings a week at 40 campuses.
"We are rationing," said Jim Parker, the schools' supervisor of plant maintenance. "Where we would normally salt the entire parking lot, now we are only taking care of icy areas that need salt. Anything that looks like ice is salted."
Sidewalks and the loops - where the buses drop off and pick up students - are the top priorities for de-icing, followed by staff parking lots.
"We have to make sure our buses can get in and out safely," said Ray Prokop, director of facilities for the county schools. "The idea is to accommodate the most people in the safest way we can."
Student parking lots at the county high schools are the lowest priority. School officials are urging students who normally drive to take the bus if possible.
"We are getting to the point of shortage but not running out," Prokop said. "We are still staying ahead of the freeze-thaw cycle."
Watson, who has led the roads crews through several decades of winters, said he will continue to hope for more salt deliveries, but he is making plans to spread the alternative substances on the roads to keep traffic moving.
"We might not have ice melting, but we will have traction," he said.