Michigan Road Salt: What is it Costing Us?

DRIVEN BY INCREASING public expectations for clear roads, and fueled by relatively low costs, Michigan steadily increased its use of road salt over the last 30 years. Today, public agencies in Michigan use nearly 2 million tons of salt annually to clear snow and ice. Based on the 2010 price per ton, the nominal price of all that salt is nearly $100 million per year. The price of salt has increased nearly 50 percent over the last five years and is projected to continue to increase dramatically as the cost of fuel directly affects the delivered price. Most of that money leaves Michigan and the country.

During the last 10 years, the state of Michigan spent billions of dollars rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure. More needs to be done, and the task of rebuilding Michigan’s deteriorating roadway assets has grown more challenging as financial resources have dwindled.  Road salt contributes to the premature degradation of infrastructure. This burgeoning, deferred maintenance problem compromises our ability to compete with other states for new business and jobs.

The greater costs of road salt are hidden, affecting both infrastructure and environmental resources. Xianming Shi, Ph.D. with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, pegged the hidden costs of a ton of road salt at $469. Other researchers have projected costs higher than Dr. Xianming’s. If one were to use a more conservative number of $200 per ton, the hidden costs of salt would add another $400 million to our annual costs for providing clear roads during the winter months. However, the enormous hidden cost is not immediately seen, but is added to the deferred maintenance problems which will be paid in future budgets. Over the next 10 years, Michigan will theoretically spend $5 billion on road salt and its correlated depreciation to infrastructure investment. This figure does not include inflationary factors.

On the environmental side of the equation, there are costs associated with increasing road salt use that seem to fly under the radar. Many other northern states and Canada have been sounding the alarm as increasing chloride levels raise concerns in ground and surface waters. Many states are beginning to take action to develop implementation strategies for sustainable winter maintenance practices that require less road salt. Increased chloride levels could impact the ecological health of inland lakes. Greater concern exists for those communities that rely on municipal well-heads for fresh drinking water supplies. Additionally, once chlorides are introduced to groundwater systems, they accumulate over time and are very costly to remove.

Reports have surfaced over the last few years of five major vehicle manufacturers issuing recalls for nearly 7.4 million vehicles because of problems stemming from road salt corrosion of vehicle safety components. Salt corrosion has led to brake line failures, gas tank issues, steering problems and axle deterioration.

A 1992 study sponsored by the Salt Institute titled “Accident Analysis of Ice Control Operations,” was conducted at the University of Marquette and examined accidents (injury and property damage) and improvements in travel time. On two-lane highways, the research indicated traffic accidents were four times higher before salting applications were made. The study concluded that “During the first four hours after zero hour, the direct user benefits were $6.50 for every $1 spent on direct maintenance costs for the operation. Winter maintenance reduced traffic accident costs from “before” to after by 88 percent and reduced the average cost of an accident by 10 percent.” It should be noted that during the course of the study, no fatalities occurred either before or after salting.

In contrast, another less formal study titled “Road Salt and Traffic Injuries in Rochester,” conducted in Rochester, N.Y. in February 1982, concluded that “The toll of victims of winter traffic accidents was reduced, rather than increased, by cutbacks in the use of road salt in Rochester. Records of traffic accidents, people injured in those traffic accidents, road salt use and weather, covering 11 years showed that progressively fewer people were hurt in snow and ice-related accidents as salt use was being reduced to approximately one half.”  The study further explained that “When snowy roads are salted, collisions involve higher speeds and are more likely to claim victims. Similar results were reported from Chicago.”

The Marquette study indicated that travel times were reduced after salting. A fairer appraisal of traffic delays would have to be done on an annual basis and should include traffic delays in the summer months when road and bridge repairs are also delaying traffic. Public safety is indeed serious business. So what is the solution? 

Many of our state’s road agencies have taken progressive steps to try to balance public safety with reduced salt usage. These efforts have shown promise but need to be replicated across Michigan if the goal is to create a national model for a sustainable winter maintenance program. Currently, there are limited mechanisms to share best practices knowledge and experience within Michigan. This much-needed exchange of information is hampered by the fact that the various entities involved (state, county, city, public facilities, universities, etc.) operate exclusively within their own peer groups; they seldom get the opportunity to collaborate and learn from the experiences of others. Michigan needs a mechanism through which all winter maintenance professionals can communicate challenges and success stories and then build on each others’ successes.

The Michigan Department of Transportation leverages its research funds through collaboration with other Midwest and northern states. One such collaboration is a pooled-funds research project group called “ClearRoads.” Many excellent examinations of winter maintenance best practices have come from these efforts and will continue to provide guidance. Winter maintenance agencies across North America face similar issues, and in today’s challenging economic times it is prudent that financial resources be used wisely. Shared knowledge and experience demonstrates sound fiscal responsibility.

In 1995, the University of Michigan recognized that existing salting practices on campus properties were seriously damaging university infrastructure and environmental resources. An internal cross-functional “Salt Use Quality Improvement Team,” of which I was a member, was formed to develop a new system to use salt more efficiently without compromising public safety. Winter maintenance best practices in the mid to late 1990s were just emerging, showing progress in discovery and implementation. By 2002, however, the university had cut its 10-year average salt use by 50 percent. Public safety was not compromised, and actual operational costs decreased. It will take time to see the additional benefits of the reduced salt use, but closer examination of premature depreciation of infrastructure could yield additional, and substantial, long-term savings.

Other recent Michigan success stories include the establishment of the County Road Association of Michigan’s “Pre-wet/Anti-ice Team” and the City of Farmington Hills’ winning a National Award for Excellence in Winter Maintenance Practices at this year’s American Public Works Association’s North American Snow Conference in Spokane, Wash. The seven-member CRAM “Pre-wet/Anti-ice Team” was established in 2006 to examine winter maintenance best practices and then share their experiences with other county road agencies. Great progress has come from those efforts and continues to advance state-of-the-art practices for improving winter maintenance operations. The City of Farmington Hills operations, along with other neighboring communities, has helped to accelerate the growth and implementation of sound winter maintenance best practices in the metro Detroit area.

What are these winter maintenance best practices, and how can we advance them? There is no single “silver bullet,” but rather a collection of practices that improve overall efficiency and effectiveness. Through improved plowing technologies, greater focus on calibration procedures, operator training, materials-placement strategies, greater use of liquids, advanced forecasting of weather and pavement conditions, improved material-spreading equipment and greater public awareness,  these efforts can build the foundation for winter maintenance programs that put Michigan at the national forefront. It will not happen overnight, but with a diligent, focused effort, statewide success can be achieved by 2020.

Economic challenges remain a major impediment to creating this new winter maintenance paradigm. To achieve reduced salt-use goals, agencies will need to invest in training and new technologies.

Michigan has the talent, ingenuity and emerging champions to achieve the balance between public safety and mobility, cost containment and protection of infrastructure and environmental resources through reduced salt usage. Better management of road salt will provide extensive short- and long-term benefits statewide — and nationwide. 

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