Road salt supply low, demand high as winter looms
The reward for surviving last winter's frigid temperatures and record snowfall, several states are learning, is drastic price increases for road salt -- and that's if they can even get it.
Replenishing stockpiles is proving challenging, especially for some Midwestern states, after salt supplies were depleted to tame icy roads last winter. And price increases of at least 20 percent have been common in places including Boston and Raleigh, North Carolina.
"Everybody is kind of scrambling around right now, contacting anybody they know who may have some salt available," said Fred Pausch, chief of the County Engineers Association of Ohio.
Some local governments are avoiding the problem thanks to multi-year contracts or secured bids. Chicago, for example, used roughly three times more salt last winter -- 436,000 tons -- than it did in 2012-2013, but the city has locked-in rates based on a contract negotiated a few years ago.
Other states aren't so lucky.
In Ohio, where more than 1 million tons of salt was used on state roads last year -- a nearly 60 percent increase over the average -- last year's average price was $35 per ton. This year, 15 counties received bids of more than $100 per ton, and 10 counties received no bids from suppliers.
Most of Ohio's 88 counties have locked in prices between $50 and $80 per ton. To ease the pain for other counties, the state recently secured about 170,000 tons of additional salt.
"The demand for salt is simply outpacing the supply that is available," said Steve Faulkner, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation.
In Michigan, like Ohio, local governments are allowed to join a network for bidding purposes, and the state seeks competitive bids each year from four vendors. But even those efforts couldn't prevent a spike: Michigan has seen prices jump by 46 percent, to $65 per ton.
On a recent weekday outside Detroit, a massive dump truck backed into a domed building and dropped about 50 tons of road salt onto a growing mound at a facility operated by the Washtenaw County Road Commission. The agency is paying $76 a ton for its preseason fill-up compared to about $34 last year, a 120 percent jump.
Part of the problem is that salt mines are being challenged by numerous local governments "trying to replenish their supply at the same time," said Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, a trade group based in suburban Washington, D.C.
"It's just a situation where you can't necessarily get all the salt mined and get it where it needs to go as fast as it's demanded," she said, noting that the group doesn't collect information related to prices or production issues.
For road officials, that translates into having to conserve and be creative. In many places, brine is added to salt to boost its effectiveness. Officials also are buying trucks that can, among other things, spread salt in the morning and clean streets later in the day.
North Carolina's capital city, which was left with about 10 percent of its 4,000-ton salt capacity after Raleigh was hit by more winter storms than usual, recently signed a three-year contract for salt costing about $110 per ton annually. That's a 25 percent increase, according to city officials.
And in Indiana, road salt bids have increased by an average of 57 percent, ranging from nearly $73 to $106 per ton.
Boston is among those breathing a sigh of relief. Interim Public Works Commissioner Mike Dennehy, dubbed Boston's "snow czar," said the city bought about 80 percent of its capacity at last season's cheaper prices of $45 and $49 a ton. The city will be charged this winter's prices, which are about 20 percent higher, for the rest of its supply.
In Ohio, road officials are keeping their fingers crossed.
"We just had the worst winter in Ohio," Faulkner said. "We're preparing for that, but we hope it's like the one we had two winters ago, which was one of the mildest."