Less snow, milder temperatures eased states' winter budgets
May. 15, 2016
BOSTON (AP) — In pure dollars and cents, the past winter in southern New England packed roughly half the punch as the previous winter.
Milder temperatures and considerably less snow allowed states to save on plowing and salting costs.
Boston received 36.1 inches this year, according to the National Weather Service. During the previous epic winter, when the city shattered records with more than 110 inches, crews removed 17.5 billion cubic feet of snow from state roadways, equivalent to 40 times the volume of dirt excavated during the massive Big Dig highway project.
Highway crews in Massachusetts responded to 18 snow and ice "events" in the most recent winter, resulting in about 310,000 total work hours for staff and contractors. The state went through 368,000 tons of salt and 1.1 million gallons of liquid de-icer. By contrast, the previous winter included 31 events, 676,000 work hours, 600,000 tons of salt and 1.6 million gallons of liquid deicer.
"When you look at the dollar amount, the number of events we had and the number of equipment hours, it all kind of equals out to this year being about half as bad as the year before," said Thomas Tinlin, the state's highway administrator.
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation spent $10.9 million on winter operations, compared to $19.5 million a year ago, according to agency spokesman Charles St. Martin. While it paled in comparison to the number of storms a year ago, this past winter was closer to average in terms of severity, with 14 storms, he said.
Mother Nature was also kinder to Connecticut, a state that has been grappling with budget deficits.
After spending $50.2 million in 2015 — the most expensive winter in the state's history — preliminary figures show $31 million expended in 2016, including required purchases of road salt and other supplies and minimum payments for plowing contractors. The state had budgeted $35 million for the winter.
"From the state's perspective, that's money we didn't have to spend," said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the Connecticut DOT.
Despite spending about $80 million less than a year ago, Massachusetts had no unused snow and ice funds to put toward patching potholes, shoring up bridges or any other transportation need.
The state budgeted just over $60 million for snow and ice and had another $50 million available in a reserve fund that can only be used to cover deficits in the account.
So while the agency didn't exhaust all its reserves, "it's not like we have money to return," Tinlin said.
Unlike the previous winter, when both the regular budget and reserve were both wiped out, officials at least will not have to ask the Legislature for more money. And that could spell relief, given that tax revenues have been coming in slightly below projections this fiscal year.
Government savings aside, the scarce snow impacted New England in different ways economically, from diminished business at ski resorts to scaled-down winter carnivals.
Looking toward the future, highway officials must decide whether to plan for extreme winters like 2014-2015, relatively calm ones like 2015-2016, or something in between.
"Our battle cry is that we always prepare for the worst and we hope for the best," Tinlin said.
Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut; and Matt O'Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.