Starts & Stops

Even a little snow adds up to a lot of MassDOT costs

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 27, 2011

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It was less than a week ago, but the dusting of snow that fell on Presidents’ Day hardly seems memorable. After all, this winter has brought more than six feet of snow to Boston, and more to other parts of the state. But even the light snowfall Monday cost taxpayers nearly $2 million to clean up, providing an illustration of how snow removal costs have risen so high this winter.

A Department of Transportation Presidents’ Day summary report, normally circulated only among highway officials, offers a window into the anatomy of a storm: the vast army of contractors and staff deployed, and the raw materials dispensed, to keep more than 10,000 lane-miles of highway and numbered routes clear.

Monday’s storm lasted 14 hours, counted from the first truck to the last, midnight to early afternoon. The flurries began in the Berkshires and eventually dusted all of Massachusetts, leaving two to three inches in the western part of the state and an inch or more in Boston and its suburbs.

During that time, MassDOT’s Highway Division deployed 213 state-owned trucks and another 956 private trucks, driven by contractors; 532 state employees were called in to clear roads and support the effort at depots throughout the state.

The bill broke down as follows: $1,045,534 for contractors, $150,000 for staff overtime, and $791,681 for the 13,725.4 tons of salt, 712.6 tons of sand, 139 tons of a salt-sand combo, 22,399 gallons of liquid calcium, and 39,447 gallons of liquid magnesium chloride spread over the 14 hours.

If $2 million sounds like a lot, it actually pales in comparison with the cost to clear a major nor’easter, when the state spends $500,000 every hour on labor and materials, said Frank A. Tramontozzi, the state’s chief highway engineer.

The state has also “squeezed out a little more efficiency’’ this winter by giving contractors hourly incentives to help them pay for bigger trucks and wing plows — side plows — that allow them to clear more road width, Tramontozzi said. Before this season, the state sometimes employed as many as 4,600 trucks at once; now the peak needed is less than 3,900, he said.

Going into last week, the state had already spent more than $93 million this winter on highway snow and ice removal, with all but $6 million of that on non-toll roads. The Massachusetts Turnpike and the other toll roads account for a small portion because they are mainly cleared with the state trucks and staff laborers whose non-overtime salaries appear elsewhere on the budget.

The snow removal figure far exceeds the $62.9 million budgeted for fiscal 2011 — a figure widely reported as $58 million, because the department had been mistakenly giving last year’s figure to the press — so MassDOT is seeking the balance from the Legislature, through the supplemental budget requested by Governor Deval Patrick.

Snow and sleet this weekend could easily push the total spent to $100 million. That would still be well shy of the record, said Tramontozzi; the winters with the most snow accumulation are not always the most expensive, given the cost of treating sleet and freezing rain, he said.

Nothing to crow aboutThe promised improvements to the MBTA’s commuter rail service alerts can’t come soon enough for most riders. Fitchburg Line rider Bill Litant said he got to the South Acton station last Tuesday morning, after the holiday weekend, to find the electronic message board still alerting riders that the trains on Presidents’ Day would be running on a Saturday schedule.

“At least the T is superb about giving everyone something to talk about while waiting for the train,’’ Litant e-mailed that morning. When he got to work at MIT, a fellow commuter told him he had nearly gone back home, thinking that he had miscounted the days in the holiday weekend.

T officials acknowledged the mistake, and said they are still testing the improved alert system that will go live mid-March.

Meanwhile, Litant, a Boxborough resident who was a T spokesman a generation ago, said a large crow landed in a tree at the same station and began cawing Friday morning. “Some wag postulated this is the T’s new information system,’’ he wrote. “The number of caws indicates how many minutes until the next train.’’

More money needed for T’s ‘state of good repair'The independent MBTA review commissioned in 2009 by Governor Deval Patrick (known as the “D’Alessandro Report,’’ because its chief author was former John Hancock chief executive David D’Alessandro) put the T’s “state of good repair’’ needs at $3 billion — the amount in repairs and replacements needed to get the aging infrastructure in good working order. The report said the T needs to spend $694 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing.

The good news is that the latest five-year capital budget prepared by the T proposes spending more than that for the coming year. The bad news is that the figure falls well short for fiscal 2013 through 2016.

“There’s no question that the MBTA is broken under the weight of its capital needs,’’ said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents the 175 cities and towns that are served by the T and that underwrite nearly 10 percent of its roughly $1.7 billion annual budget.

At a budget review before the finance committee of the MBTA Board of Directors, Regan last week declared himself “the skunk at the garden party’’ and called on the T to “wave the flag’’ on Beacon Hill for help. The T is burdened by debt it inherited a decade ago when lawmakers set out to make the MBTA self-sufficient; in the process they awarded the T a fixed percentage of the state’s sales tax — which has failed to meet projections.

Just to plug a projected operating-budget deficit for the coming year, the T has put forth a host of new solutions: offering long-term parking revenue to investors in exchange for a lump sum up-front; leasing the garage under North Station to a private operator for a one-time payment; selling ads on the T’s website and CharlieCard; peddling merchandise; switching from two operators to one on each Red Line train. None of those close the gap likely in fiscal 2013, nor do they address the long-term capital needs of the system, Regan said.

General Manager Richard A. Davey said afterward that it is not the right time to appeal for outside help.

“I appreciated his comments. Paul definitely has a broader and longer perspective than I do,’’ he said. But “We still have some opportunities in this budget to improve non-fare revenue, and to continue to cut our costs. . . . For the purposes of this budget cycle, I’m not willing to wave the flag.’’

The MBTA’s cost-cutting efforts include trying to move MBTA unions to the state’s Group Insurance Commission for health insurance, which could save the authority $25 million or more annually, Davey said; most of the T’s unions are fighting the proposed move in court.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at