Will salt shortage leave Vermont roads slippery?

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Early winter storms mean salt supplies are running thin in parts of the Northeast. The Vermont Agency of Transportation says it spent between $10 and $20 more per ton on road salt for this winter than last year. But VTrans officials say they aren't worried about the price increase.

"Keeping Vermont roads safe at safe speeds is a priority and we will spend the money that we need to spend in order to accommodate that," Vermont Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn said.

Flynn says there's no question the agency will always invest in winter road safety, no matter the cost.

"If we need to get funds from other areas of our transportation budget, should that become necessary, then we will do that, and we can move money around within our budget to some limited degree," Flynn said.

That could mean some other projects might need to wait, like construction and new equipment purchases, until the next fiscal term starting in June.

"It's all team, you know. We're all one agency, so no matter from the highway division or project delivery, we're all using the same money," said Todd Law of VTrans.

The total annual budget for all of maintenance and operations is almost $100 million. Winter road maintenance takes about one-third of that, with $32 million-$33 million, with $11 million-$12 million of that spent just on road salt.

"We don't usually change our budget amount. Every winter is different, significantly different. Last year was fairly demanding-- a lot of freezing rain events. But three years ago, we had one of the mildest winters we've had in multiple years, in decades," Law said.

And it was last year's winter weather that put a strain on the regional mines' salt supplies. In Vermont, the agency used about 173,000 tons of salt. The yearly average is 130,000 tons.

Right now, officials say that shortage hasn't affected Vermont. Salt sheds are at full capacity.

"We have enough out there where I'm comfortable saying that we'll be in pretty good shape," Law said. "Our stockpiles may be gone by the end of the year, but I can only speak from what we have and not what the mines can produce."

Flynn says even though Vermont has enough salt right now if the winter runs long it's possible the agency could need more down the road. In that case, the rest of the Northeast will probably be struggling, as well. Then, the salt mines may see even greater pressure.

VTrans officials say if they do get in a bind and run out of salt, they will look to other suppliers besides their usual contractors. Mixing sand with the salt is not an option.