When faced with the prospect of cutting $62,223 more out of its $8.9 million budget, the Middlebury selectboard spent 45 tough minutes on Monday searching the budget’s line items for a few extra dollars here and there. They come up with just under $39,000, with another $23,000 still to find to keep the proposed tax hike capped at 5.5 cents.
Selectboard member Nick Artim suggested cutting $30,000 in one line item: less salt use on residential side roads. The town had $130,000 budgeted for the year. The town’s main thoroughways, he said, would continue getting the same treatment as in the past, but he suggested cutting back on the use of so much salt on the town’s side roads and ask residents to adapt to winter driving conditions without the “dry-roads” policy the town currently follows.
We couldn’t agree more. While many town residents obviously appreciate snow covered roads to be plowed clear, salted and returned to the dry-roads condition of a summer day, it’s an expensive process and an unnecessary luxury. We live in Vermont. It snows here in winter. Residents should be expected to take personal responsibity to drive safely on snow-covered roads — especially the side roads serving residential areas.
The primary roads through the town and throughout the downtown, out to the hospital, and primary residential access roads (like Washington Street Extension and Seminary Street Extension) and those serving the schools and business districts (such as Exchange Street) would be plowed and salted as usual because the abundance of traffic there makes a dry-roads policy smart from a safety perspective. Similarly, there may be a few roads on steep inclines (the Chipman Hill area, for example) that deserve special treatment for safety reasons. But for most of the town’s residential areas and off-shoots in the more rural areas of town, a saner policy of winter snow removal makes sense — and could save far more than the extra $30,000 in salt.
A policy that reduces salt use on the roads, could also reduce the number of passes snowplows make over a specific stretch of road. Fewer passes could lower the cost of gasoline used in the town trucks, and cut overtime hours — thus producing even greater tax savings.
Nor would Middlebury be pioneering new policy by not using as much salt on side roads, and not getting them back to dry asphalt within a day or two after winter storms. As Artim discovered in Syracuse, N.Y., that big Northeastern city has a successful snow removable policy that limits salt use on side roads. Similarly, in my experience, many of the mountainous towns in the Rocky Mountain states and Northwest consider a dry-roads policy so expensive as to be unaffordable. Residents in most of those mountainous areas (Vail, Aspen, Steamboat and Breckenridge/Frisco included) simply accept that they’ll be driving on snow-covered roads throughout the winter, and hail their road crews and town officials for keeping the roads accessible and the snow removed from parking areas, sidewalks and other venues where pedestrians need to have access to be safe. A little sand is sprinkled sparingly on slick spots where they develop.
The dry-roads policy in Middlebury certainly produces clean, dry roads for much of the winter; and no one can argue that the road crews aren’t doing their jobs well, if that is what is expected. But if the argument against changing the policy, as Public Works Director Dan Werner suggested at Monday’s meeting, is that some people might get upset if the roads stayed snowy, and furthermore, that it would be difficult for public works to know which roads to salt and which would not be salted, well, that’s not much of a defense of the status quo.
The reason not to change the current policy would be if it would place the public in unncessary danger, or if change would not yield the expected savings. But if those two arguments cannot be made, and the town can provide reasonably safe roads at substantial savings, by all means let’s look at changing the current policy.
The selectboard did agree to cut $10,000 out of the salt budget (see story on Page 2A), and that’s a good first step. But in the search for another $22,000 to cut, we think the selectboard could be bold enough to suggest that less salt is a better bargain for taxpayers — and then listen to what residents have to say. With town taxes going up 5-6 cents and school taxes likely to be higher as well, they may embrace the snowy roads policy as the hearty Vermonters they are — and enjoy the lack of salt scraped onto their lawns come spring.
Angelo S. Lynn