Winter has finally come to Chicagoland. Temperatures have dropped and we have had our first measurable snowfall. This has also led to some articles on local municipalities buying road salt (Road departments prepare for winter, Daily Chronicle, Nov 30 & Indiana road salt supplies up, cost down for 2009, Chicago Tribune, Dec 5). It turns out that managing a towns inventory of road salt is a tricky business. The Farmer’s Almanac can take a guess, but no one knows just how bad the coming winter will be. To make matters worse, the need for road salt depends on more than just the total volume of snow. As the head of the DeKalb county highway department explains:
“We use the same amount of salt on one 10-inch (snowfall) as one 2-inch (snowfall),” he said. “If we get ice, that’s worse. The only way to fight ice is with chemicals.”
On top of that, the prices move more than you would expect. Many towns are paying prices in the ballpark of $50 – $60 per ton this year. Two years ago prices were below $50 a ton. Last year prices we well over $100 per ton. (Why? Lots of reasons starting with high transportation costs and flooded salt mines.) As a consequence both Illinois and Indiana organize purchasing groups at the state level to get better prices before the season starts. Getting more salt during the season may be possible but is not guaranteed.
One wonders whether more can be done to organize purchasing and planning. The city of DeKalb supposedly uses snowfall records from the last 10 years to plan its purchases. I can’t decide whether that naively throws out a lot of data or whether it naively ignores more current information. The case for the former is that ten years is really nothing compared to climate patterns. If the snow fall records are available for the last 20 or 30 years, why not include that information? On the other point, apparently Chicago benefits from “El Niño events” with winters that are both warmer and less snowy relative to the average winter. Why not include that in the forecast?
Here’s an added twist. According to TribLocal.com (Spirits up about road salt supplies in north suburbs, Nov 27), the Illinois state purchasing pool had two options this year:
[P]articipants had the option of bidding on either 100 percent of their seasonal supply or an initial 80 percent with the option of increasing to 120 percent.
Now holding prices fixed, this seems like a no brainer. You’ve got to do better by committing less upfront but having the option for more later. But it’s not clear that that’s the case if you throw in availability. Towns in the past have not necessarily gotten everything they have ordered:
Adam Letendre, assistant to the public works director of Skokie, said that despite changes intended to improve the Central Management Services bidding process, the village decided to venture out on its own for salt this year. “The way the state handled it in the past few years has not suited us well,” Letendre said. “The state has tried to acquire salt and told use they acquired the salt. But when push came to shove, the state didn’t have it.”
If buying everything early ups the chance of getting the goods, it may make sense to take everything up front. Correlation matters here. If Skokie needs more salt, it is likely that every town on the North Shore does as well.