Road crews throughout south-central Indiana, including Bartholomew County, have nearly exhausted their supplies of road salt, with more snow expected this weekend.
“We’re getting down to the bare bones,” Bartholomew County Commissioners chairman Carl Lienhoop said. “And until the current weather pattern changes, I don’t see any improvement in our situation in the foreseeable future.”
As of Friday, the county had about 200 tons of the salt-sand mix — used to treat roads — left in its storage bins, Lienhoop said.
He said each truck spreading the mix needs the weight of 80 to 100 tons just to be able to maneuver on the ice and snow.
During an average snow event, county road crews use about 525 tons of the mix, said Dwight Smith, Bartholomew County highway garage superintendent.
“We’ve already told emergency management that we won’t be putting down much this weekend,” said Smith, whose crews will continue to plow without treatment.
Luckily for Columbus residents, the situation has improved greatly since midweek, when only 200 tons of salt was left in the city’s 1,200-ton storage shed.
City officials received confirmation Friday afternoon that 500 tons of salt would be delivered later in the day, Mayor Kristen Brown said.
That amount should be adequate to handle two average winter-weather events and could be stretched if the city decides to concentrate its resources on main thoroughfares and intersections, the mayor said.
With another 500 tons on order that is expected to arrive next week, Brown said she sees no reason to begin rationing salt at this time.
Many city and county governments throughout Indiana have found themselves caught in a supply-and-demand crunch.
“There’s no sense in hiding behind the excuse of ‘we don’t have the money,’” Lienhoop said. “The chances of getting in the salt to meet our current demand is slim to nil.”
Other local governments in the region face the same situation.
In Seymour, the streets remain packed with snow and ice, the result of frigid temperatures and a low supply of road salt, Mayor Craig Luedeman said. The city is resorting to mixing sand with what little salt it has left in an attempt to make it stretch.
The Jackson County road department reported having only 120 tons of road salt on hand Friday. The company that provides road salt for both Seymour and Jackson County has no product left to sell, said Jerry Ault said, the county’s assistant highway superintendent.
In Jennings County, officials managed to obtain 400 tons of additional salt from a former supplier just a few weeks ago, but that salt already is gone, commissioner chairman Matt Sporleder said.
“Just using sand alone doesn’t work at all,” Sporleder said. “We also got cinders from Cincinnati through Duke Energy to spread on the roads as a backup plan, but it’s all gone, too. Now, we’re sitting here waiting for the snow and ice to arrive this weekend, and what we have is all we’ve got.”
Brown County is out of salt for road clearance, highway department director Roger Cline said.
“We still have contracts for quite a bit of salt,” Cline said. “The problem is getting it here.”
He said his department has been in contact with numerous suppliers, without luck. The county purchased several hundred tons of calcium chloride, a more expensive alternative to traditional road salt. This is being mixed with sand for use in lieu of the undelivered salt.
In recent years, many local government entities — including Columbus and Bartholomew County — had been able to obtain low-priced salt by ordering through bids handled by the Indiana Department of Transportation.
But Bartholomew County’s Smith said those same cities and counties are now discovering the downside of piggybacking on INDOT bids during an exceptionally harsh winter.
“When the salt arrives into Indiana, the companies will deliver to the state first before they deliver to any city or county,” Smith said.
The state transportation department takes the salt it needs before authorizing deliveries to cities and counties, he said.
“The ice and snow is also hampering deliveries on barges in Jeffersonville, where we get our supply through the North American Salt Company,” Smith said.
Going it alone
While the mayor of Columbus said the city pays about $5 more a ton to handle its own bids for street salt, that extra money does come with certain advantages.
“The reason we do that is primarily for situations like this,” Brown said. “When we work directly with our own supplier, we’re not at the mercy of the state.”
By not participating in state bidding, the city also is not obligated to order a set amount of salt annually, whether it’s needed or not, she said.
Brown said the extra money is a relatively small amount to pay for direct control of the city’s salt supply and guaranteed delivery.
“We don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish on such an important public safety issue,” Brown said.
Although Bartholomew County ordered 500 tons of salt when its supplies began to dwindle, the product currently arriving on those Ohio River barges was probably sold a year ago, which means it’s not for sale, Lienhoop said.
While the salt and sand treatment that already has been spread on local streets and roads will provide some level of protection, Lienhoop warns that one mild spell with rain will wash off the mixture.
He admits that taxpayers may not be happy about the situation as it affects the condition of their roadways.
“People can get mad all they want, but it won’t do a bit of good.” Lienhoop said. “Now, we can scrape all (the snow) we can, but if we get more ice and snow, people will just have to drive more carefully.”
More snow is likely this weekend, especially Sunday and Sunday night.
While Columbus might now enjoy guaranteed salt deliveries, even the city cannot claim to be out of the woods at this time, Brown said.
“All suppliers are being overwhelmed,” the mayor said. “I have no idea how well we will fare the rest of the winter. We still have February and March to get though.”
The Tribune in Seymour and the Brown County Democrat both contributed to this report.