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Valley road crews stay productive even without salting or plowing

Road crews stay productive even without salting or plowing

Winter in the Mahoning Valley has been mild to say the least.

With only one major snowstorm — or significant snowfall of any kind, really — throughout the season, road crews have not spent much time clearing roads and spreading salt.

That does not mean local road departments have kept idle hands, though.

“One thing I’m very proud of is that our road department staff have stayed busy,” Austintown administrator and Road Superintendent Mark D’Apolito said. “We still have to keep the trucks ready in case the hard weather does come in, so we’re still doing maintenance.”

But D’Apolito’s staff did more than maintenance. They’ve spent the winter on moderate renovations to town hall, removed old paneling from the wall behind the board of trustees dais and repainted in the meeting hall and office areas. They also have cleaned township facilities and made time to cold-patch the potholes that plague the township’s roads during damp seasons.

“We haven’t had much of a winter, but we’ve had what feels like three or four springs in that time,” he said.

D’Apolito said rain and inconsistent winter temperatures do more damage to the roads than snow and salt.

“The repeated freezing and thawing really disrupt the base of the pavement, so you might save on salt but it costs you in other areas,” he said.

Youngstown, Boardman, and Liberty road crews also took the opportunity to address other business.

“Over the past four to five years, we’ve brought in a lot of young guys. Half of our staff is relatively new, so we’ve taken advantage of this time for training,” said Kevin Flinn, commissioner of Buildings and Grounds for the City of Youngstown. “And we have a lot of other things we’re responsible for, when we’re not plowing snow, patching potholes or fixing guardrails.”

Flinn said his office just assembled a demolition team to tend to residential and commercial structures, and, on Friday, his staff was collecting litter and identifying roads the city can close off to prevent illegal dumping.

Wayne Hickman heads up Liberty’s road department.

“One thing I pride myself on is drainage improvement,” he said. Hickman’s team has spent the winter – and a good part of the rest of the year – finding sinkholes in storm drain systems and clearing out ditches.

“It’s never ending. Last year, we cleaned out more than 6,000 feet of ditches and other vegetation clearing. And we’ve done plenty of pothole patching this winter too,” he said.

Marilyn Kenner’s staff in Boardman kept busy too, replacing culverts, conducting preventative maintenance on vehicles, equipment and facilities, and of course, patching potholes.

Ray Marsch, Ohio Department of Transportation District 4 spokesman, said regional crews have repaired pavement and bridge approaches, removed trees and vegetation that obstruct sightlines along highways, and prepared ODOT vehicles and equipment for spring and summer.

“It’s a great time to work in the garage to make sure everything is running and set up for construction season,” he said. “So we stay very busy when it’s not an active snowstorm.”

WINTER COSTS

Still, winter demanded some of its due, but last year’s fairly mild season left road departments well prepared.

“It was very similar to last year,” Kenner said. “We had eight callouts (for winter weather). This is the first year we’ve run straight salt in 10 or 12 years, because we had so much left over from last year.”

Communities purchase salt from ODOT to get the best price, but they must provide the agency with an order in advance and are obligated to stick to the amount they ordered.

“We thought we’d need 2,500 tons,” Kenner said. “We used about 1,200 tons this winter, and last winter we used about 2,000. We have a surplus now, so next winter we won’t have to purchase as much.”

Flinn said Youngstown also used much less salt – only 3,500 tons this season, compared to 8,000 last year, which is still considerably less than the 13,000 to 16,000 tons the city has used in past seasons.

Hickman said Liberty has used more salt this year, unlike his neighbors. So far, his crews have been called out 12 times to prepare roads for inclement weather.

“It hasn’t been a lot of snow, but a lot of rain and ice, but it still gets below freezing and you have to lay down salt,” he said. “You have to get out and treat it early to give the salt a chance to work before the roads ice up.”

Liberty has used 660 tons this year at a cost of $35,000, compared to 600 tons and $30,000 last year.

“We are still ordering 600 to 700 tons a year, and carrying over about 300,” he said. “That’s just putting it down where we need to, on main roads, hills and curves.”

He said 250 tons of salt are left in Liberty’s salt dome, which holds 1,000 tons.

D’Apolito said that while January’s big snowfall took one quarter of Austintown’s salt stores, the township has placed onlyone order for salt this year. Austintown’s last salt order before January was in March 2023, and the township entered this winter with a full dome of salt.

Austintown had to call out its road crew for one emergency application of salt, which took three to four hours and used between 120 and 150 tons.

The township’s annual purchasing summaries for salt show an almost steady year-over-year downward trend. In 2019, Austintown spent $125,725 on salt; in 2020, it spent $91,723; in 2022, $91,380; last year, $43,646, and this year, $34,075. The only break in the trend was 2021, when the township had to spend $139,396 on salt as the COVID pandemic drove up the prices of salt — as well as other commodities.

Kenner said that while Boardman has not saved much on salt, the township has seen savings in fuel costs, although her department shares its diesel stores with the fire department.

She said last year at this time, Boardman purchased 21,500 gallons. Right now, it purchased 7,400 gallons and has 2,000 gallons in its tanks. She said she expects the township will buy another 7,000 gallons for the calendar year.

Boardman pays $2.26 per gallon this year, compared to $2.97 last year.

Marsch said that for this season, in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, ODOT has used 12,000 tons of salt, put in 19,000 labor hours, and put 154,000 miles on salt and plow trucks. That is 1,200 tons of salt, 1,000 hours of labor and 7,500 miles less than last year at this time.

The one area where ODOT’s figures in the Valley did increase was in brine usage. Last season, ODOT used 274,200 gallons of salt brine on Mahoning and Trumbull roads through March 1. This year, the department has spent 325,000 gallons of the solution, which is 77% water and 23% dissolved rock salt.

“That is an initiative ODOT has taken the charge on, going back to five or six years ago,” he said. “The goal is to start using more brine all across Ohio. It’s not only cheaper than straight rock salt, but it’s also just as efficient.”

Have an interesting story to share? Contact Dan Pompili@vindy.com.

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