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As snow piles up, so does Minnesota’s plowing Bill

By The Associated Press/
Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS – Midway through winter, snowplowing costs are piling up and road-clearing times on the rise in Minnesota, new state figures show.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has spent about $18 million clearing ice and snow so far this winter, compared with about $9 million this time last year. Expenses were about $20 million through the end of January.

"We're on track for an expensive winter,'' said MnDOT spokesman Bob McFarlin. "And we have a lot of snow days left.''

The extra winter costs may mean MnDOT will have to limit summer maintenance projects such as repairing shoulders, fixing potholes or buying new equipment, McFarlin said.

As for plowing times, MnDOT needed an average of 2.2 hours to clear snow from major roads in the seven-county metro area during the period of Oct. 15 through Jan. 31, according to data released Wednesday.

It's up from last winter's average of 1.5 hours – but better than the 3.8 hours it took during the winter of 2001-02, and the 3.4 hours required in 2000-01.

Statewide, the only category of roads worrying MnDOT officials are "urban commuter'' highways, such as Interstate 94 beyond St. Cloud. The roads are taking an average of 5.5 hours to clear.

Mark Wikelius, director of MnDOT's maintenance office, said he was not sure why the roads took longer, but he intends to find out this month.

In northern Minnesota, a three-day blizzard in the Duluth area and unusually cold weather helped drive snow removal times in that region up to an average of 17.5 hours in January, up from 11.2 hours in December. And overall plowing in the region is running slower than expected.

The increase in plowing times has renewed criticism from DFL lawmakers and the snowplow drivers' union, who contend that MnDOT is not putting enough plows on the road during critical times.

"When you look at where it snowed in January, their numbers aren't good,'' said AFSCME Council 6 spokesman Pete Benner. "Duluth and Brainerd were overwhelmed.''

Benner said he understands that intense storms will overwhelm the system, but chronic delays in snow removal needlessly endanger lives and snarl commutes.

"We are doing less with less,'' he said. "Our goal is not to embarrass the department. Our goal is to get additional resources for snow removal.''

MnDOT's Wikelius said the agency has become far more efficient in recent years, which allows them to clear snow quickly with fewer trucks. For example, he said widespread use of brine sprayed on roads before snowfalls makes clearing snow easier.

"People are not seeing as much compacted snow,'' Wikelius said. "They're seeing slush, which doesn't stick and plows off.''

Benner and House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul have criticized MnDOT's push to curb overtime, which Entenza said has prevented metro-area plowers from clearing roads in the predawn hours before the daily commute.

But Entenza did say the agency has been more liberal with overtime in recent storms. ``Frankly, they're only doing better when they go back to the old system,'' he said.

McFarlin defended the system, saying plowers have been putting in more overtime lately during harsher storms and with better communication between management.

"These numbers reflect what we've been saying all winter long,'' McFarlin said. "We have been consistent."