Salt Shortage Compounds MoDOT’s Financial Challenges

Salt piled inside of a MoDOT storage structure has dwindled during the harsh winter. | Photo by Morgan Denlow/Missouri Business Alert
Salt piled inside of a MoDOT storage structure has dwindled during the harsh winter. | Photo by Morgan Denlow/Missouri Business Alert

This unusually cold and stormy winter has caused the Missouri Department of Transportation to run low on salt used to melt ice and forced the department to buy extra salt from out of state. On top of that, the extreme weather will mean more potholes to fill.

MoDOT is already struggling financially, so much so that the Missouri Highways and Transportation voted in January to stop adding any new road projects and halt a cost-sharing program with counties and cities that had been used for road construction, and focus solely on maintaining existing roads.

“We’re shrinking construction projects,” MoDOT maintenance engineer Beth Wright said. “But when we’re required to spend more money on snow and ice removal than we had anticipated for the year, then we have to do things like cut back on construction projects. We can’t just leave all those potholes that have formed because of the cold weather out there.”

The last few weeks in Missouri have been especially cold, with ice and snowstorms keeping MoDOT employees busy.

“The salt shortage is a nationwide problem,” Mike Belt, MoDOT’s Central Missouri maintenance superintendent, said in a mid-February interview. “Right now we are a little low on salt in mid-Missouri, but we still have 20 percent of what we started with this winter. We’re currently moving some salt around internally within the state.”

The annual amount of salt purchased is based on a 10-year average of past salt usage, and MoDOT has roughly between 15 and 16 thousand tons of salt for the 33,000 miles of road its workers maintain statewide.

Much more salt is needed for ice storms than for snowstorms. Two ice storms in December hit MoDOT’s salt supply pretty hard, Belt said.

“Salt works poorly when the temperature gets down to about five degrees,” Wright said. “We mobilize employees when there’s a 40 percent chance of snow or ice. If the storm never hits and we’ve already sent people out, which happens sometimes, then that can become an additional expense. But it’s a reasonable cost for our safety.”

Salt isn’t the only material that MoDOT uses to make roads safer for travel. Crews also use sand, cinders and two liquid chemicals — beet juice mixed with salt water, and liquid calcium chloride. Depending on the weather, MoDOT will use a combination of these materials.

MoDOT’s dome-shaped salt storage building in Boone County contains a tall pile of salt in the center and smaller piles of sand in the corners. But more notable is the large amount of empty floor space that dominates most of the structure.

“The shortage seems to be coming from our central suppliers in the Midwest,” Belt said. “A lot of our salt comes out of Kansas, some out of the state of Louisiana, and those are the ones that seem to be having a shortage. We have entered into a contract with a company in Texas, so we will get some salt out of there. It’s just a matter of looking at other resources that we don’t normally use.”

MoDOT managers have experienced years when they’ve used more salt than they have this year, but buying salt from Texas is a bit more expensive due to higher transportation costs.

But that cost is nothing compared to the rising prices for asphalt, concrete and steel, which have increased as much as 200 percent since 1992, according to a MoDOT news release.

Because of these rising costs and diminishing fuel tax revenues, MoDOT has reduced its staff by 1,200 and closed 131 facilities.

The annual cost to keep roads clear in the winter is about $42 million, according to a 2012 MoDOT report.

Though MoDOT is feeling the pressure financially, the maintenance engineers believe they are in good shape for any more winter storms.

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