Winter weather is testing the mettle of area highway crews - The Buffalo News

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Winter weather is testing the mettle of area highway crews

We have all felt the wrath of this cold and cruel winter.

A nasty January beat many of us down. Now February seems to be following suit, starting with the overnight storm that was poised to pummel the area.

But if you feel snow-weary, how about town and city highway departments, their budgets and work crews pulling double shifts on the plows?

It hasn’t been any picnic for them either.

This winter has brought higher use of road salt, a much earlier than usual onslaught of potholes and lots of overtime for highway workers.

“It’s been a hard-hitting winter,” said Town of Tonawanda Highway Superintendent Bill Swanson. “We haven’t had one of these for a long time.”

January was brutal, starting with a blizzard and ending as the 12th snowiest January on record.

But, hey, it’s winter in Buffalo, the kind of snowy season that local towns and municipalities prepare for every year.

For many local governments, our harsh winter hasn’t created a huge financial crisis – not yet, anyway.

Highway crews, like Hamburg’s, are racking up record amounts of overtime. In Amherst, the highway department has already blown through its overtime budget for the entire year.

“We don’t stop plowing,” said Amherst Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson, “but we’ve got to go back to the Town Board and say, ‘Now, what to you want to do?’ ”

No matter what their situation, town highway chiefs are looking warily at the weather forecast over the next two months.

One of the saving graces is that it’s the beginning of the calendar – and budget – year, when the coffers are full.

But what happens if the area gets hit hard early next winter?

“I’m feeling comfortable no matter what comes the next couple of months,” Town of Hamburg Highway Superintendent Thomas Best said. “What I’m starting to worry about is November and December. If we get hit hard at the end of this year, I could be in trouble.”

The troubles vary from town to town. But one universal pest haunts every municipality: potholes.

“They’re everywhere,” Tonawanda’s Swanson said Tuesday. “It’s a nightmare. Actually, we have seven crews out right now.”

Swanson, like other highway chiefs, cited two key reasons for the epidemic of potholes. One, of course, is that the highway crews fill the potholes only to have the snowplows rip out the fillings later.

“It’s just a matter of time before the pothole is just the way it was before we patched it,” said John Loffredo, Erie County commissioner of public works. “It could be a couple days, it could be a week.”

In addition, the potholes have thrived from the alternating bouts of frigid and relatively warm weather. Potholes generally form when water seeps into the pavement, expands upon freezing and then breaks apart the asphalt.

That usually happens in early spring, but not this year.

“When have you ever seen zero-degree temperatures one week and then 30 degrees six days later?” asked Anderson, from Amherst.

Roads aren’t the only thing getting battered. West Seneca Highway Superintendent Matt English mentioned another victim, the physical breakdown of his fleet of plows and trucks.

“I’d be willing to bet that we have more breakdowns this winter than the last two years because of all the usage,” English said.

Salt has been another problem. There’s been a huge run on the large salt piles in every highway barn. Part of that is due to the unusual snow pattern we’ve had.

“The highway guys, we call this our nuisance snow,” English said. “Every day we have 2 or 3 inches, and then we have to go out and salt. And salt costs money.”

From Amherst to Hamburg, from Lancaster to Tonawanda, highway chiefs have bemoaned their increased use of salt, whether they’ve already gone through 90 percent of their salt budget for the year or used twice as much as last year.

But there could have been an even greater need for salt. Road salt tends to lose much of its de-icing effectiveness below about 20 degrees.

“There was a period where the temperatures were so cold, we didn’t bother salting all the streets,” Swanson said. When that happened, workers salted only the main roads and the intersections on the side streets.

The tough winter has created a mixed bag for the plow drivers who pave the way for most of us to make our way around town.

Many are exhausted, working double shifts and weekends that disrupt their home and family schedules.

“The crew is getting pretty worn out,” said Clarence Highway Superintendent James Dussing, “but we had a weekend with a couple days off, so that kind of recharges the guys.”

In West Seneca, highway crews normally work from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but often get called back again at 11 p.m.

“My guys are great,” English said. “It can be a nuisance for guys when they get home at 3:30 p.m. and know they may have to come back at 11 p.m. and work a double. That’s a long night for them.”

On the other hand, those extra hours can mean fatter paychecks for many.

“The guys like it. They call it ‘white gold,’ ” Best said. “That’s when they make their money.”

Now, they’re geared up again.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday advised New Yorkers to exercise caution and avoid unnecessary travel during the storm that’s expected to cover a wide portion of the state through today.

All you can do is take it in stride, said Lancaster Highway Superintendent Daniel J. Amatura.

“We’ve had a couple of easy winters, and now we’ve got a tough winter,” Amatura said. “We’ll get through it. It is what it is.”

It also doesn’t hurt to think positive – like Orchard Park Highway Superintendent Frederick Piasecki Jr.

“Hopefully, in February,” Piasecki said, “Mother Nature will be somewhat gracious to us.”


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