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County highway plows through stockpiles of salt during a very wintery winter

By Howard B. Owens

For two consecutive winters, Genesee County used very little salt on roadways to help keep motorists safe, but what was saved disappeared quickly this winter, County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens told the Public Service Committee on Monday.

Because of the mild winters, Hens started the year with salt in salt barns that was two years old and an unspent salt budget from last year. By Jan. 1, it was all gone and spent.

"We burned through both the pile and the money in November and December," Hens said. "So coming into January 1, I was already anxious to buy more. We had our new budget and filled the barns up with salt again. We burned through all the money we had budgeted for salt this year in about a month and a half."

So far, Hens said, the highway department is about $25,000 in the red for road salt in 2014.

"I've still got, theoretically, a few more storms this spring, storms or ice or whatever we end up getting, and I've got to figure on next November, December, too, and anything outside of it," Hens said.

To ensure an adequate salt supply, Hens is shifting money from the summer and fall road maintenance budget.

That probably means there are some potholes that won't get fixed.

"As everybody knows from driving around, pothole season is just starting," Hens said. "As bad as the winter's been, the temperature fluctuations, the extreme temperature fluctuations, where it's 20 below to 50 in two days, that freeze, thaw cycle just tears the pavement apart.

"We've had three or four of those huge swings this winter," Hens added, "and the pavement's starting to show it. As that frost comes out the ground, it's only going to get worse."

Hens also shared the observation that during our heavy snowstorm a week ago, there were few drivers on the road.

That made road maintenance a lot easier.

People stayed home, Hens figures, because the memory of January's blizzard was still on their minds.

"That was a bad storm," Hens said. "That was probably the worst that I'd seen since the Blizzard of '77. That storm caught a lot of people off guard just because we hadn't had a bad storm like that in a long, long time. That was very fresh in people's minds, and when they said the word blizzard this time -- the National Weather Service was pretty good about putting a blizzard warning out -- everybody was like, 'OK, last time we had a blizzard, it was nasty. I'm staying home.' "

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