Cold-weather states across the country will need hundreds of thousands of tons of salt to keep roads and highways safe this winter. But prices are running two and three times higher than last year, forcing some states and municipalities to make do with less.
Road maintenance crews used a near-record 20.3 million tons of road salt last year because of heavier snowfall from the Northeast to the Midwest. State and local transportation authorities tapped into stockpiles that normally would have been available this winter, causing shortages that have bumped up demand - and prices - dramatically.
Even with the higher prices, road salt sales in the first six months of 2008 already are up 20 percent from last year and are expected to set a record this year, said Dick Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute , a trade group that represents suppliers.
Wisconsin , Illinois, Ohio and Michigan were hit especially hard by last winter's snowstorms, and they sought to buy a total of nearly 2 million tons of road salt over the summer.
Maine secured contracts for about 114,000 tons of salt it needs this winter, but at a cost of more than 27 percent over last year, or $72 a ton, up from about $57 a ton.
"We're just going to have to pay these prices," state Department of Transportation spokesman Herb Thompson said. "This means we have to find resources elsewhere in our revenues and parts of other programs will have to be foregone."
Wisconsin transportation authorities used 50 percent more salt last winter than the winter before at a cost of more than $86 million - compared to an average of about $43 million in the previous five years, said David Vieth, director of the Bureau of Highway Operations for Wisconsin. Officials were able to extend last year's salt contract at $47 to $48 a ton, but any more they may need could cost up to $86 a ton.
About a third of Iowa transportation department garages won't be getting new salt deliveries once their salt is gone, under the state's new contract. If needed, the state will redistribute salt to these garages in outlying areas from deliveries made to the others, officials said.
Iowa officials say this summer's bad weather aggravated the state's salt shortage. Deliveries from Louisiana, the state's main supplier, were disrupted by heavy rainstorms, flooding in the state and hurricanes that stalled Mississippi River traffic, officials said.
The higher prices have forced some state and local governments to rethink their plans for the winter.
The Wisconsin transportation department, for example, is changing the way it clears roadways, leaving salting as the last resort, Vieth said. Crews will first plow, then spray a de-icier before the snow sticks and another chemical once snow begins accumulating. The state cannot afford to have salt bounce off the road and end up wasted in a drain or sewer system, he said.
The Ohio Department of Transportation launched "Smart Salt Strategy" which helps officials determine when and where salt is needed by measuring surface temperature of roadways and then applying appropriate materials. The program aims to help the state be 30 percent more efficient in its use of salt by using calibrated salt spreaders and sand or grit mixed with salt and brine.
Pennsylvania also plans to monitor road temperatures using infrared sensors and then adjust the amount of salt-water brine-a mixture that officials there say sticks to the roads better and works faster-thrown on the roads.
Thompson said Maine 's transportation officials have already frozen or eliminated maintenance operations to make up for the higher salt prices, and will cut back overtime, stagger daily duties and slash plowing and crew hours this winter. Next summer will see reduced drainage work, mowing and paving projects.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) have launched investigations into the higher prices after frustrated community officials complained.
Ohio was also able to lock in last year's salt price of $42 a ton under a contract that was extended through the end of September this year. Ohio already has 500,000 tons of salt in place and uses about 700,000 tons each winter, except for last year when it went through 900,000 tons. The state will pay $60 a ton for additional salt.
"We made sure to buy as much as we could through old contracts, but now we will have to make sure we use the right amount of salt at the right time," transportation department spokesman Scott Varner said.
Ohio gave local communities the option of piggybacking on the state's salt contract, which allowed them to buy it at the lower price. Varner said more than 200 communities joined in, and the rest may not receive any salt or pay as much as $100 a ton.
Localities that didn't join the state's contract complained about high prices and shortages to Strickland, which resulted in the transportation department investigation.
State departments of transportation - most of which secured salt contracts this summer - buy far more tons of salt than local communities and can usually negotiate better prices, Hanneman of the Salt Institute said. Most states have secured enough to cover state roads, but many smaller cities and counties have not.
Some speculate gas prices, market costs and increased demand contributed to this year's salt problems, but Ohio is continuing its investigation.
"I can't imagine that the higher price of gas and diesel isn't a factor, but how much of a factor," Varner said.