Winter weather costs piling up for Eastern Iowa communities

Frequent storms, even if smaller events, adding up for cities' plowing crews

Published: January 1 2014 | 12:05 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:32 am in
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As the snow piles up this winter, so too do the costs of removing that snow from streets.

Snowfall greeted Eastern Iowans in the Corridor Wednesday morning, causing Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and other communities to send out their street crews on New Year's Day. The holiday work means overtime pay for plow and truck drivers, as well as the standard costs for salt and sand and running the equipment. Those costs have been adding up during the first several weeks of the winter.

"When you dispatch the trucks and plow the entire city once, that will run you about $22,000, whether you are plowing an inch or plowing four inches," said Rick Fosse, Iowa City's public works director. "That's where those frequent, small storms can become expensive over time."

Iowa City dispatched its full fleet of plows on Wednesday and were expected to work until mid or late afternoon Wednesday, Fosse said. In Cedar Rapids, which got less snow thanks to Wednesday's storm tracking south, 10 employees were called in. Cedar Rapids maintenance manager Craig Hanson said between about 60 hours of overtime for those employees, materials and costs of deploying the trucks, the cost of Wednesday's storm would be north of $6,000.

Hanson said the cost of a snowstorm can vary wildly.

"A small snowstorm would be anywhere from a few thousand up to $20,000, depending on material and overtime response," he said.

Factors impacting the cost of a storm can include the duration of the snow, amount of precipitation and whether it's light or heavy snow. While lighter snow is less expensive to remove, it can be made more expensive by winds and blowing, Hanson said.

"There's no magic formula (for estimating storm costs)," he said.

Cedar Rapids averages six to eight "major" snow events and about two dozen "average" events each year, Hanson said. The city typically averages 3.5 snow events featuring more than three inches of snow. By Hanson's count, the city has already had three such snowfalls, with three months of winter weather left to go.

Another issue cities have had to deal with this winter has been extremely cold temperatures. The frigid temperatures reduce the effectiveness of the salt cities put down on streets to melt the fallen snow. Iowa City uses salt treated with a beet derivative that increases its effectiveness in lower temperature, but recent temperatures have rendered that salt less useful at times.

"With these low temperatures, the salt is not that effective," Fosse said. "That's why we blend sand. You need it for traction."

While the holiday means overtime pay for plow drivers, it does seem to mean fewer drivers on the road. Cedar Rapids police Lt. Cody Estling said officers responded to a vehicle in a ditch at Interstate 380 and Wright Brothers Road, but little else by way of traffic calls. Iowa City police Sgt. Brian Krei said several vehicles were stranded on Interstate 80, but traffic within the city was not bad.

"We haven't had too many problems within the city," Krei said. "I suppose it's been normal winter conditions. We prefer (motorists) not be in the street today."

There's no snow forecast for Thursday and Friday, but the weekend comes with another chance of snow on Saturday and Sunday, which could spell more overtime costs for cities in the storm's path.

"That seems to be the way some winters go," said Fosse. "It only snows on the weekends or holidays. It would be great if it would only snow 8 to 5, Monday through Friday."

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