Mild winter could extend PennDOT budget into summer

With a winter maintenance budget of $1.3 million and $2 million for Elk and McKean counties, respectively, Greg Sayers, PennDOT (Pa. Department of Transportation) county maintenance manager for the two counties, said he is prepared to battle Jack Frost nipping at the roads and bracing himself and his team for what he knows firsthand to be an often- unpredictable season. While the season has been off to a remarkably mild start with above-average temperatures and below-average snowfalls throughout the area, Sayers said he hesitates to entertain notions of "winter savings," or leftover portions of the budget that result from an uneventful winter, minimal maintenance and less man hours and use of department supplies. In this situation, the "winter savings" could in turn be applied by the department to additional road maintenance projects come summer that PennDOT "wouldn't necessarily have had the money for otherwise," Sayers said. Sayers said he is "guardedly optimistic" on the subject of winter savings, adding that while mild so far, the end of winter can often bring with it the most dramatic weather and additional expenses. "People are already starting to talk, even our own people are talking about winter savings, and I caution them pretty strongly because I have been doing this for a long time. As little snow as we have right now, two weeks of ice storms in March can devastate our material, because it takes an awful lot more material to fight the ice storms -- they are so, so unpredictable," Sayers said. There are precedents which favor the possibility of winter savings this year; Sayers said the last time he saw any winter savings realized was following the winter of 2001 and that there were plenty of similarities between that year's and this year's winters. But Sayers cautioned that the latter part of the 2001-2002 winter saw weather harsh enough to drain the district's resources. "We had a March in 2002 that was horrendous with ice storms. It was like every other day we were getting an ice storm and we started struggling to get salt in," Sayers said. Sayers added that in order to prevent a repeat of that supply shortage, provisions are in place and he has already amassed 4,700 tons of salt between the five Elk County locations in Brandy Camp, Byrnedale, Johnsonburg, St. Marys and Ridgway. Sayers also said that as severe a winter as last year's was, they only used 6,700 tons of salt in Elk County and costs totaled $1.5 million, even with what he described as "a pretty aggressive paving program this year." Sayers said that it is important the public realize that the season has truly just begun and severe weather down the road can easily deplete the budget, in effect negating any potential savings to be carried over into the summer. "Here's my hesitation with that, if we put something out there regarding winter savings and say we're gonna look at paving or repairing this or repairing that and April comes around and somebody thinks we had a mild winter, they may not realize that we had a few ice storms in February and March that completely blew any savings we had right out of the water," Sayers said. Pick up a copy of the Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.