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Amherst ponders using salt brine to treat roads, like other towns

Many local highway departments have started using a brine solution to wet their road salt as it's spread.

Less salt is needed when the brine is used, lowering expenses, highway superintendents say. Plus the brine helps salt adhere better to roads instead of skittering away to the curb. And it works at lower temperatures.

But until now, the idea hasn't caught on in Amherst, which has the largest highway department among Buffalo's suburbs.

"Every community that surrounds us ... to some extent is involved in these types of methods," said Amherst Deputy Highway Superintendent Paul Anderson.

He is proposing the town invest $151,000 in the tanks, pumps, sprayers and other equipment needed to outfit the town's 15 salting trucks. It's money that could be recouped from savings in just the first year, he said.

"This is just to get our feet wet, get involved," he said. "Let's see how this thing works. We really have a lot of promise with this."

The Town of Tonawanda has been using it for two full straight winters now. Although the winters have been mild, Highway Superintendent William E. Swanson has been pleased with the results.

"It does work well," he said.

Here's how it works.

As salt is dispensed, it is misted with a solution of 70 or 80 percent salt brine. The rest is a mixture of an organic substance such as molasses or beet juice with magnesium chloride, which inhibits corrosion.

The solution works just as well to de-ice roads at zero degrees as untreated salt does at 25 degrees, Anderson said.

But crews have to be careful, Swanson said. If not applied correctly, the brine can actually make ice on roadways.

It can also be spread as an anti-ice agent before expected snowfall. The solution will melt the first inch or two of snow, and prevent bonding of the snowpack and ice to the road surface, which allows plows to remove it more easily.

"This can be effective to 10 degrees below zero," Anderson said.

This method could eliminate the need to call in highway department employees "creating considerable savings to the taxpayers of this town," Anderson said. The town uses between 350 and 450 tons of salt to cover all of its 424 lane miles.

"Every time we send these trucks out it's an average of about $27,540," he said. "By using this method, if we can eliminate one, two, three, even possibly four of these events per year that will give us the funds to pay for this initial equipment investment."

Anderson projects needing 30 percent less salt during a winter season, and a 7 percent cost savings overall.

Tonawanda cut the average amount of salt it uses to cover its main roads by more than half, from 200 tons to 78 tons.

"That's a huge savings," Swanson said.

The Amherst Town Board two years ago formed a committee to look into these options, but it went nowhere. The current Town Board seemed receptive to Anderson's pitch last week.

"It seems like the numbers make a lot of sense to go with this," Deputy Supervisor Steven D. Sanders told Anderson.

Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said the proposal is "a win-win for the public."

"I encourage them to move forward with it," Weinstein said. "If it's not in the budget, I encourage them to pay for it out of the savings they're going to generate, maybe even the savings from this mild February. We'll have to be creative to find the financing for it."

The high upfront costs are daunting, Swanson said, "But in the long run you're saving a ton of money."

Amherst would purchase its salt brine at cost from the Town of Tonawanda or Clarence beginning next winter, then possibly start their own brine-making operation if all goes well.

Anderson said there are some upsides to being the last to adopt the technology. Other towns have worked out kinks and settled on best practices over the years.

The Town of Hamburg, for example, was using beet juice but had problems with the solution clogging up the delivery system and stopped using it about five years ago.

"I don't feel badly that we're the last ones on board," Anderson said. "Initially, I did. In hindsight, all these other communities have gone through all these little problems and they've figured them out."

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