Low-Salt Diet

Road salt use should be part of infrastructure discussion

Gov. Rick Snyder has said we need to do something about the condition of our roads. But nowhere in the debate is any talk about what has gotten us into this deferred maintenance quagmire — a 30-year experiment with escalating dependence on road salt and the magnitude of damage it brings.

Having had the opportunity to chair a salt reduction effort at the University of Michigan from 1995-2002, I became well acquainted with the numerous hidden costs of road salt. The university afforded us the opportunity to take on the challenge of actually reducing salt use while examining whether we could maintain or enhance public safety, work within existing budget structures, and reduce the depreciation of campus infrastructure and minimize environmental concerns while trying to reduce salt use by 50 percent. We eventually achieved our goal and all but eliminated abrasives.

Why is salt reduction best practices seemingly not a part of this discussion when there is so much evidence of its damage?

If we do not make this effort a part of the overall plan to rebuild Michigan’s road infrastructure, it simply leaves the problem for others to deal with in another 30 years, losing other opportunities and further diminishing our competitive advantages.

The current approach of having “running water and wet roads” as a result of salt application has led to a deterioration of those roads. A pilot program in which 20 agencies are selected to participate can show the advantages of reducing road salt use. The goal should be for each agency to reduce salt use by 100 tons; at $50 a ton this would result in an immediate savings of $100,000, plus future savings on road maintenance.

Such a pilot program should review operations and develop short- and long-term recommendations, establish salt reduction and cost goals along with level of service (public safety) goals, assure proper equipment calibration, gain buy in from staff, conduct training, establish evaluative procedures for testing and run the plan. 

Such a program could be monitored throughout the season, making corrections where necessary and preparing a year-end report card that includes the next steps. 

Ignoring this vital component of road maintenance means that our infrastructure will continue to depreciate faster than necessary and do nothing to decrease repair costs for vehicle owners.

Mark Cornwell is former chairperson of a Salt Use Quality Improvement Team at the University of Michigan from 1995-2002.