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Winter Storms Blow Into Government Coffers

This was the scene on the highways around St. Louis on the morning of Jan. 12. It was a slippery and slow commute for many. This is a view of eastbound Interstate 64 at Mason Road.
(Missouri Department of Transportation/Facebook)
Winter storms come with a price tag.

This year’s array of snowstorms kept governmental entities across Missouri busy plowing roads. It hasn't been cheap to keep streets clear.  And the expense is expected to go up as winter storms continue their blitz across the St. Louis area and the Show Me State.

To understand just how much more expensive this winter is than previous years, Missouri Department of Transportation’s Elizabeth Wright provides some perspective.  She says it’s cost the state around $40 million to plow snow off state roads so far. But MoDOT spends on average $42 million every year.

“And we have six weeks of winter storms to go,” said Wright, who is MoDOT’s state maintenance engineer.

Snow clearing costs are also trending upward for the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. The city of St. Louis spent around $1 million on snow removal for the storm in early January. St. Louis Streets Department Director Todd Waelterman said last week he wouldn’t be surprised if final costs were double that amount.

“If you listen to the meteorologists and you hear what they’re saying, we’re potentially due for another half a dozen storms in the month of February,” he said. “So it’s pretty easy to do the math to see that we have the potential to double the amount of snow we’ll get and double our need to respond.”

David Wrone, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic, says the county has spent roughly $2 million on snow removal so far this year.

“It’s only February 3, so I anticipate we’ve got at least a few more blows from the winter season to absorb and to respond to,” Wrone said. “Certainly our expenses are going to increase as the storms continue to roll in and we respond to them.”

Paying the piper

Every time it snows, state, county and local governments have to pay plow drivers, buy raw materials, fix broken equipment and fuel up trucks. And this year many of those costs were higher because of the frequency of the storms.

For instance, Waelterman said, for the January storm, the city spent $500,000 on salt. He also said that the storms damaged well over a dozen plows, and the city had to pay around $150,000 worth of overtime.

Wrone said the county has paid $1.3 million for materials, and added that salt usage has quadrupled from last year. Wrone’s department is responsible for plowing around 3,100 miles of roads, as well as public residential streets in unincorporated parts of the county.

If weather forecasts prove correct, MoDot's Wright said, then it’s possible that this year could be “one of the higher seasons as far as expense.” It could be similar to 2008, when MoDOT spent around $64 million and used 330,000 tons of salt.

Wright says MoDOT plans their budget ahead "to purchase the materials that we’re going to use through the season.” But she says a busy winter season can “impact our ability to resurface roads, re-pave roads and put up signs.”

“If we use more than we anticipated and more hours of overtime, then we have to look at the other parts of the budget that we would make expenditures for and decide what we’re going to do less of,” Wright said. “There’s only so much money to go around. If we spend more on snow, then we spend less on other things.”

Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, emphasized in an e-mail that “we'll never "run out of money" to pay for storms. "Period.”

St. Louis County' s Wrone also said that material resources aren't a concern.  “In terms of any sort of crises or problem dealing with it from a material standpoint, that is not an issue," Wrone said.

“Our salaries are our salaries,” he said. “People are going to get paid whether it’s May or January. Fuel, obviously, we buy that anyway. And salt… that’s just part of doing business in Missouri in the winter.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.