HAMMONTON — Scott Ives has been spending quite a bit of time away from home lately, telling his wife, Amy, and 4-year-old daughter, Addison, that he has even more work to do at the Atlantic City Expressway.
Normally, the 35-year-old from Deptford Township, Gloucester County, is a body-shop specialist, fixing dings and dents in the expressway’s fleet of vehicles. But this winter, he has racked up 121 hours of overtime driving a snowplow for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the toll road’s operating agency.
“I let my wife and daughter know that I love them. Then I tell them that I’ll see them after the road is clean and safe,” Ives said of his grueling work schedule.
Ives holds a commercial driver’s license, which qualifies him to operate a snowplow. But his transition from body-shop worker to snowplow driver underscores just how much highway authorities in New Jersey are scrambling to keep pace with the succession of snowstorms during this unusually harsh winter, which in addition to manpower issues, is straining budgets and stockpiles of road salt.
Jim Sullivan, who oversees the expressway as deputy director of engineering and operations, said another SJTA employee, who usually works as a carpenter, also is doubling as a snowplow operator.
“We are using every warm body we have,” Sullivan said, emphasizing that all snowplow operators out on the expressway hold a commercial driver’s license.
Expressway road crews have been working 16-hour shifts during the storms, although they do get four-hour breaks on the job to catch up on sleep and grab a bite to eat.
“It gets tiring, but we are provided with some rest time,” Ives said.
When asked whether all of the expressway workers are growing weary, Sullivan responded, half-jokingly, “I am.”
Even the boss is putting in long hours. Sullivan was in the office until 4 a.m. Thursday for the most recent spell of bad weather. During two other storms, he worked a 38-hour stretch and then another 42-hour marathon, using his office as a makeshift bedroom for sleep breaks.
At one point, Sullivan got behind the wheel of a Ford F-350 to plow the parking lot at the SJTA’s administration building at the Farley Service Plaza.
New Jersey’s relatively mild winters of the recent past had given highway agencies a financial break. But storm-related costs this winter are running far ahead of last year.
As of Jan. 26, the New Jersey Department of Transportation had spent $60.2 million for snow-removal operations, compared with $62.5 million for the entire winter last year, spokesman Steve Schapiro said.
Altogether, the DOT oversees 13,295 lane miles in New Jersey. DOT crews have had their hands full dealing with the snow, slush, sleet and black ice that have made roads slick and slippery throughout the state.
“Our crews are working quite a bit to make sure the roads are safe for the motorists of New Jersey,” Schapiro said.
The price tag to salt and plow the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike has hit $19.3 million so far this winter, compared with $24.7 million for all of 2013 and $7 million in 2012, according to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, operator of both toll roads.
As of Tuesday, the expressway’s 2014 storm costs for labor and materials, such as road salt, liquid calcium and brine, have totaled $924,460. Last year, the expressway incurred $1.3 million in storm costs for the entire winter. In 2012, those expenses totaled $546,361.
“The authority is taking a financial hit,” Sullivan said. “Only one month into our fiscal year, we’ve already almost blown through the entire snow budget.”
In addition to funding, stockpiles of road salt are being depleted. Sullivan said the expressway encountered shortages after its Baltimore-based salt supplier was temporarily shut down following a worker’s death in an industrial accident.
With the snowstorms not letting up, road crews have dipped even deeper into their salt stockpiles. At the expressway’s central maintenance yard in Hammonton, the towering “salt dome” building is only about half full. Sullivan said there is enough salt to handle this weekend’s expected snowstorm, but supplies will have to be replenished later.
Schapiro said the DOT also has been challenged by depleted salt stockpiles but has enough supply on hand for several more storms.
Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority, said his agency has about 46,000 tons of road salt remaining, enough to deal with several more significant snowstorms on the parkway and turnpike.
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