A Tough Winter: Lots of snow, frost heaves, potholes

(from Maine Townsman, April 2005)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

Before the flooding that followed the storm the first weekend of April, David Holt said he thought Norway had experienced a bad winter. “Now I know it was a terrible one,” he said.

The veteran town manager surveyed much of Norway’s 70 miles of town roads, many of them unpaved, and found “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in damage. The upper Androscoggin Valley was pummeled with 3.9 inches of rain, and while major river flooding was largely confined to low-lying areas, the effect was devastating on Norway’s town roads.

Damage from the latest storm is still being tallied up, but Holt’s estimation of the winter of 2004-05 is widely shared across the state – although each region seemed to have its own public works dilemmas. Along with tougher scrutiny of municipal budgets, both from the state and taxpayers, and the job of keeping the roads plowed and passable in winter, and smooth and pothole free in summer will only get more challenging, it appears.

Running the gamut

In northern Aroostook County, winter’s biggest challenge was a wild variance in temperatures, in November and early December, that resulted in almost unprecedented freeze-ups of culverts, and consequent flooded, icy roads.

In Presque Isle, Public Works Director Gerry James has had crews out all winter trying to thaw out culverts and restore drainage. “It went from 40 degrees to zero in just a few hours,” he said. “There was just no way to keep up with it.” Even in early April, he still had two crews digging out ditches and using steam to open blocked culverts.

In Caribou, Dave Bell experienced similar conditions. “The freeze-thaw cycle started unusually early. We always have this problem, but it’s just been a lot more difficult this year.”

At the other end of the state, Erik Street, public works director in Yarmouth, had his crews busy plowing snow. As of the end of March, Yarmouth had recorded 115 inches of snow – well above average. “We’ve gotten used to some mild winters recently, particularly last year,” he said. “So when the snow keeps coming like that, you’ve got plenty of work.”

The City of Portland was busy removing snow as well, but because of the density and extent of its downtown areas, crews faced additional challenges because almost all the snow being plowed has to be trucked out of the downtown.

In Skowhegan, Public Works Director Greg Dore contended with a variety of snowy and icy conditions. The big storms came late in the season, which meant less snow and sand spreading, but plenty of extra overtime – and wear and tear on equipment.

“On the big storms, we’ve been plowing for 25 to 30 hours straight, and that takes a toll,” he said. So far, he’s lost two transmissions on plow trucks, and a broken hub on another. “There’s no way you can budget for that, except to hope that there’s still some money in the equipment account,” he said.

The March storms, after relatively small amounts of snow earlier, were bound to take a toll, and most of them were experienced statewide. In Southwest Harbor, Town Manager Ken Minier saw his budget “going down the drain. It seemed like every other day we were plowing or spreading.” His salt costs alone were $7,000 more than the $20,000 he’d budgeted.

In Cumberland, Town Manager Bill Shane, a former public works director himself, was inclined to be more philosophical about the season. In terms of the 20 winters he’s been in town government, “this might have been the fifth or sixth worst,” he said. Challenges to budget, equipment and manpower, he said, are to be expected in a climate as dynamic as Maine’s.

A budget pinch

The impact on budgets varied as well from town to town, but it’s safe to say that there were no big savings anywhere.

Erik Street in Yarmouth had a detailed list of expenses to discuss. Overtime pay has exceeded the $84,000 budget by about $8,000 thus far; Yarmouth is on a fiscal year ending in June. Salt usage was up only slightly over projections – 2,192 cubic yards rather than 2,000, but salt prices increased sharply last fall, from $32 to $42 a ton, putting him about $10,000 over his $74,000 budget.

Because so much of Yarmouth’s town roads are in the populated center, sand spreading showed a much larger increase, about 2,000 yards instead of 1,200. While sand is cheap – just $6 a yard – it ends up being at least as expensive as salt in Yarmouth because so much of it has to be removed from storm drains and catch basins. With the costs of collection and trucking to the demolition landfill, Street figures that the actual cost of sand is closer to $60-$70 a yard.

Sand cleanup is such a major project that Street figures his crews will be concentrating on it from mid-April to the end of May. After that, road repairs will commence, with capital construction projects starting in July. In all, Yarmouth budgets $506,000 for road operations costs, and has a capital budget of $455,000.

In Greenville, Town Manager John Simko said that he will be “glad to see this winter behind us,” in part because, as of late March, he was already at least $10,000 over his $100,000 budget for equipment and labor. “We haven’t had time to add up all the costs yet,” he said. Like many communities, Greenville has followed the state’s lead in using more salt to maintain roads while cutting back on sand.

Each storm requires its own decision-making, however, and salt isn’t always the weapon of choice. Part of the reason for preferring salt, David Holt said, is environmental. “Some of our lakes have a phosphorous problem, and runoff from sand and gravel is a real problem,” he said. While “not without its own issues,” salt’s environmental impact is usually more localized. With that said, “We did use a record amount of salt this year. We’d like to find ways to cut back on that, as well,” he said.

Caribou is also feeling the budget pinch. Dave Bell’s commodities budget – covering salt, sand and other chemicals – is down to $13,000 of its original $90,000 allotment, with plenty of bad weather still possible before the end of the fiscal year.

FEMA comes and goes

One possible solution to the annual budget crunch that has become a familiar part of Maine winters is funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA. Once reviled as an agency that did as little as possible, FEMA has been much more active since the mid-1990s.

Greg Dore recalls that after a 1993 spring storm reported to FEMA, Skowhegan took lots of pictures of the damage, but went ahead and made repairs to the biggest washouts. When it submitted its application for reimbursement, “We were told that they weren’t going to pay anything for roads we’d already fixed.”

Since then, he said, “that agency has come a long way.” FEMA officials sometimes suggest additional places that might qualify for payment, and reimbursements are relatively swift and comprehensive.

Already, two winter storms have been approved for FEMA relief, and it’s possible spring flooding may be severe enough also to qualify. Since the federal government covers up to 75 percent of costs for an “unusual event,” such payments can make a big difference in the affected towns – the difference, often, between a lot of red ink and finishing the year in the black.

The good times may be coming to an end, however. With concern over federal budget deficits mounting, all domestic programs are being scrutinized, and FEMA is in the process of redefining unusual natural events in a way that could severely limit how many storms qualify. Although the new rules aren’t yet final, public works directors seem resigned to the fact that next year will probably offer less help with their budgets, regardless of the actual weather.

Pothole season

Once the plowing, sanding and salting is done, town public works departments turn their attention to repairing the roads. With a lot of water in the ground last fall, and repeated freezing and thawing, it’s not surprising that this winter has produced a bumper crop of potholes. “They’re blossoming all over, even as we speak,” said Dave Bell in Caribou. In Presque Isle, Gerry James called the situation “the worst I’ve seen in 19 years,” with craters appearing in December and no end in sight.

Maine’s climate makes it difficult to patch roads during the winter, and many departments are reduced to filling in holes and refilling them when traffic churns up the cavity once again. Some public works departments, however, take a more activist approach to winter repairs.

Dave Bell is a firm believer that it’s just as important to make repairs in winter as in summer, and for 15 years his crews have used a hot patching technique involving heaters and a Trackless sidewalk plow. The equipment wasn’t cheap, and there are significant operating costs, but Bell believes that “You can’t afford not to fix the roads when they need it.”

If cold patching is needed, he points to new material that can do the job. While some highway officials claim that the new cold patch costs 50 times as much, Bell said, “It probably holds 50 times better, so it’s worth it.”

Greg Dore said Skowhegan, along with the neighboring communities of Madison, Norridgewock and Anson, are buying a hot patcher with a $20,000 grant from the state’s regionalization fund, which recently distributed $1 million to projects statewide in March. The machine will actually cost $29,000, with the four towns kicking in the balance. He expects it to be fixing roads later in April, if all goes well.

Aside from spot repairs, more serious work will begin once the frost is entirely out of the ground. Several town managers and public works directors say the damage created by winter weather, and spring flooding, will probably alter their reconstruction plans devised earlier. “There are always things you didn’t anticipate,” David Holt said. “This year there are just a lot more of them.”

While towns try to keep at least even with road conditions, and perhaps get a little further ahead each year, local officials express disappointment about recent state policies that have cut back expectations for any permanent improvements. As was true during the 1970s and 1980s, they see the state compensate for budget shortfalls by trying to stretch highway dollars further, repaving with thin coats of asphalt rather than doing the reconstruction that is the only permanent solution for Maine’s bumpy, often substandard roads.

Greg Dore is especially outspoken on this subject. “Route 201 hasn’t even been repaved since 1995. It’s a major artery, with 24,000 vehicles a day, and the lifeline of this area,” he said. Although a new bridge in downtown Skowhegan is being planned, this lack of maintenance has nothing to do with the bridge project, he added. “We thought they were going to finally get to it last year. Now, with more cutbacks, it may not even happen this year,” he said.

Spending limits

The prospect of spending limits on municipalities, part of passage of LD 1 earlier in this legislative session, prompted differing reactions. Erik Street said that there has already been much contingency planning for budget reductions – starting with the ultimately unsuccessful Palesky referendum that would have sharply reduced the amount towns could raise in property taxes.

“The reality is that we’ve been cutting back for 10 years,” he said. “It hasn’t been business as usual in most towns for a long time.”

The cost overruns of this winter have caused some concern in town halls, though it is far too early to calibrate them precisely. Most of the time, things even out, although this may be one of the years they don’t.

David Holt said that Norway is fairly well positioned at this point, and that both the school and municipal budgets should be well within the state-mandated caps for the coming year. “I would take the position, as a public official, that we ought to be meeting these expectations, even though it’s far from easy for us to do it,” he said.

Holt did express some concern about the overall direction of state policy concerning public infrastructure, including roads. “I’ve been at this 17 years now, and you’d like to think that you’re making progress. By the time I retire, I’d like to leave things a little better than I found them.” But lately, he’s not so sure that will happen.

Public expectations for services continue to increase, but not a corresponding willingness to pay for those services, he said. Norway is looking into limiting subdivisions on its back roads, one step toward avoiding a continued escalation of expectations for improvements all over town. It’s a difficult balance, though.

“Of all the things towns do,” Holt said, “maintaining the roads is probably our most difficult challenge.”