Nice weather keeps snow plows idle
ALBANY, N.Y. -- The plow operators in Syracuse, N.Y., the snowiest U.S. city, have spent much of this winter busy with the work of warmer months: cleaning the streets.
"One good thing about the snow: A lot of times it covers up the trash and the dirt," Pete O'Connor, the Public Works commissioner, said in a telephone interview. "Now, people are calling to get the litter cleaned up. The city's definitely cleaner than it would be at this time."
Syracuse had spent $525,958 on road salt by the end of January, $500,000 less than in the same period last year and a third of its $1.8 million annual salt budget, O'Connor said. In an average winter, the central New York City of 145,000 has about 83 inches of snow by Feb. 8, according to Jack Boston, a meteorologist with Accuweather.com in State College, Pa. This year it had about 32 inches, he said in a telephone interview.
From Wyoming to Vermont, state and local governments are saving in overtime, road salt and fuel as mild weather keeps plows parked in sheds. In the contiguous United States, January's average temperature was 36.3 degrees, 5.5 degrees above normal, making it the fourth-warmest January on record, Accuweather said in an emailed statement.
"It's warmer this year mainly because of the jet-stream pattern," Michael Pigott, Accuweather senior meteorologist, said in the statement. Storms are moving west to east, rather than in the north-to-south pattern that sends warm air to the Arctic and pushes cold air south, he said.
The Chicago Streets and Sanitation Department, responsible for clearing snow from 9,500 miles of streets -- the distance from the Windy City to Sydney, Australia -- called out its plows nine times from December through January, compared with 17 times in the same period last year, according to Matt Smith, a department spokesman.
In December and January, Chicago used 76,000 tons of salt, a little more than half the amount it put down in those two months last year, he said.
"We're thankful we can catch a break from Mother Nature," Smith said. "We don't calculate savings until the winter is over."
Chicago used 86,000 tons of salt during a Feb. 1, 2011, blizzard, he said.
On Feb. 10, snow covered 28.4 percent of the lower forty-eight states, the second-least for that day since records were first kept in 2004, said Carrie Olheiser of the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center in Chanhassen, Minn. The lowest was 25.1 percent in 2006.
Wyoming, whose average January temperature ranked among the 10th highest ever, had spent 43 percent of its $27.1 million snow-maintenance budget by Jan. 31, said David Kingham, a Transportation Department spokesman. In a typical year, the state would have been about 55 percent of the way through its budget, Kingham said.
In Hennepin County, Minn., the state's most populous because it includes Minneapolis, plow drivers are sealing cracks in the roads, work normally reserved for spring and fall, said Chris Sagsveen, manager of road and bridge operations. Plows there have gone out 12 times since Jan. 1, half as often as in the same period last year, he said in a Feb. 10 telephone interview.
"Any time you don't plow, you save in overtime costs, material costs and fuel," Sagsveen said.
North Dakota had spent $4.3 million of its $20.5 million snowplowing budget by the end of December, compared with a four-year average of $6.1 million for that period, said Peggy Anderson, a Transportation Department spokeswoman.
The Midwest and Northeast got a brief taste of winter last weekend, with a dusting of snow in Chicago, flurries in New York City and 4 inches in Syracuse. The temperature dip won't likely last, Boston said.
"We've gotten a few cold-air masses, but they move right out," he said.
The savings in Syracuse may let officials dip less deeply into cash reserves. Fitch Ratings put a negative outlook on $43.8 million of limited-tax general-obligation bonds in November after the city drew down its fund balance for the fourth consecutive year, leaving an operating deficit.
In Syracuse, one major storm can eat up $100,000 in overtime over 10 days as moisture in the form of snow is blown off the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes, O'Connor said. The city gets an average of 128 inches a year, according to a Weather.com analysis. It's the snowiest U.S. city with a population of 100,000 or more, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.
O'Connor said he's counting on divine intervention to keep the Syracuse streets dry for the rest of the winter.
"I've been praying as much as I can because he seems to be listening to me and keeping the snow away," O'Connor said.