Baltimore County Now
Baltimore County Chief of Highways
Everybody’s curious about the price tag. How much does it cost to plow the roads and keep them open every winter?
In Baltimore County, when there’s a hint of snow – when the weather person says there’s a chance for precip tomorrow – we, in the Bureau of Highways, Department of Public Works, begin looking very carefully at the bottom line. Because as soon as the word goes out that we’ve got snow duty – that we’re on the clock – we’re on the meter too.
This year we expect that plowing snow (that’s with a staff of 400 employees manning three hundred trucks working from 11 shops) will cost more than $37,000 per hour. And when we put down salt, that price goes up to $108,000 per hour. That’s because salt costs more than $50 a ton and we stock about 50,000 tons at 14 locations across the county.
Sunday’s storm cost the County $1.4 million. We’re still tabulating the expenses related yesterday’s snow and will post the total shortly.
It’s expensive, of course, but the total cost to keep the streets clear and safe varies wildly from year to year. Last year was an economical year for us. Baltimore County spent a little under $4 million to call out crews, to salt and to plow for 13 storms – many of them just dustings. But “Snowmageddon” back in 2010 was more than five times as expensive. The bills came to $20 million. Snow accumulation that winter was estimated at seven feet!
For a complete picture, take a look at our website for a listing of storm costs since Fiscal Year 2001.
During the past 13 years the cost has gone from a low of $2 million (when accumulation was a mere six inches in 2002) to the colossal winter four years ago. The average is about $7 million. But whatever the cost, you can rest assured that Baltimore County's Highway crews will give it our all to keep the streets open this year.
With today’s bright blue sky and downright balmy temperatures, it’s hard to believe that snow is in the forecast. While the models differ and meteorologists are hedging on the accumulation potential, here’s an insider’s look at some of the challenges of a major snowstorm.
When the world turns white and wind blows knee-high drifts across the road, driving a plow is like being at sea in the perfect storm. Roads and landmarks disappear. You often run on instinct, and always on a lot of adrenalin. The days are long and hard.
After five or six inches of snow, County roads can turn into an obstacle course. Plowing begins as an adventure, but quickly becomes a bare-knuckle trek as we clear streets and avoid parked cars, signs, mail boxes, buried curbs and covered pedestrian islands.
We start early – hours before the snow is expected – so that crews can assemble and so we can check equipment and load salt. Then, when the first flakes hit the ground, we begin our routes: 166 separate routes across the County, covering 2600 miles with 300 trucks and 400 personnel.
We can salt and clear a normal snow (about three or four inches) in a long day. But when the snow gets deeper, the time on the road gets exponentially longer – three, even four, days with only short breaks for food and sleep during the heaviest snows.
The grub is not gourmet during a blizzard; lunch and dinner are what’s left on the shelves at the convenience store. But it’s filling – and sometimes warm. Rest is another matter. We can either go back to the shop for a few winks or pull over to the side of the road. Either way, it’s not very restful.
In the big storms, like Snowmegeddon of 2010, we did our best work at night, when the traffic was off the streets. If we’re lucky, we get to neighborhood streets before residents begin shoveling their driveways into the streets – which makes our job just a little harder. But even in the best of circumstances, narrow courts and cul-de-sacs are a challenge. Maneuvering a ten-ton truck with a ten-foot plow on the bumper through a circle of parked cars can be like threading a needle in the dark.
Salting is, of course, a big part of the job. The County stocks 52 thousand tons of salt in 14 locations, and we put down whatever it takes – though we try to use it sparingly. People complain, with some justification, that salt damages cars and can get into the water table. But when people are snow-bound, these issues seem less important.
Pushing snow is hard, exhausting and grinding… but it’s important. Snow duty in Baltimore County is not just driving a truck. It’s the work that keeps our roads open, that lets you get to the store or to your job, and that clears the way for police, fire and medical responders to handle emergencies which don’t stop for the weather. That’s why we do it.
Remember, you can get updates about road conditions and percentage of roads plowed on our Snowfighters page. Plus you can follow Baltimore County Emergency Management on Twitter @BACOEmergency for information to keep your family safe in severe weather or other emergencies.