As the snow piled up on New Jersey’s roadways this winter, so did the costs for clearing it.
All that de-icing, salting and plowing during the unusually harsh winter pushed snow-removal budgets into record territory for the agencies overseeing state highways and toll roads, according to figures released Tuesday.
“Twas not a cheap winter for any agency or town,” said Kevin Rehmann, a spokesman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, operator of the Atlantic City Expressway.
Rehmann noted the expressway’s snow-removal costs came to $2.3 million, eclipsing the toll road’s previous record of $2.27 million in 2010. He said 2014’s costs could go even higher because the SJTA’s budgeting cycle for snow removal will take it through the end of the year, including the cold-weather months of November and December.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, operator of the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, also experienced record-breaking costs for snow removal. This year, the NJTA spent $42.1 million, compared to $23.7 million in 2013, spokesman Tom Feeney said.
The NJTA went $25.7 million over budget for snow removal on its two toll roads, forcing it to dip into reserves to cover the difference, Feeney explained.
Altogether, the storm-related costs for the state, county and municipal roadways could approach a half-billion dollars for 2014, New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson has estimated.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation spent a record $138 million this winter to keep state roadways clear of ice and snow — about the same amount as the combined cost for the previous three years, spokesman Steve Schapiro said.
“Our first priority is safety and keeping the roads clear and safe. Our crews did an excellent job doing so this winter,” he said.
The DOT went through 496,000 tons of road salt, nearly twice the amount needed last year, Schapiro added. At one point, the DOT encountered a salt shortage, igniting a controversy between Simpson and the maritime industry over who was to blame. Simpson complained in February that shipping requirements in a century-old maritime law kept a 40,000-ton supply of salt purchased by New Jersey bottled up in a Maine port. The maritime industry alleged that poor planning by the DOT caused the salt shortage and delivery delays.
Throughout the winter, the DOT dispatched clean-up crews for 50 separate storms or threats of dangerous road conditions. The DOT started the winter with a $10.3 million budget for snow removal, but the state Treasury Department reimbursed it for any costs that were higher than the original amount, so there was never any fear about running out of money, Schapiro said.
The SJTA has built a cushion into its snow-removal budget to make sure the expressway will have enough money throughout the entire year. A decline in expressway toll revenue this winter, combined with the higher storm costs, put a further strain on the SJTA budget.
“We create a contingency fund at the beginning of the year to cover any extraordinary costs, such as extremely harsh winter storms,” Rehmann said. “In addition, we have implemented a budget-recovery initiative to manage all costs to ensure that we have the funds to cover all expenses, including snow costs, in the fourth quarter.”
The SJTA was so busy keeping the expressway clear of snow this winter that some of its employees, who usually work as carpenters or in the auto-repair shop, were pressed into double duty as snowplow drivers. All of them had a commercial driver’s license, making them qualified to operate snowplows.
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