Snowstorm news: Minnesota’s economy worth its salt

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It will take about half a million tons of salt to keep Minnesota streets and roads safe for driving through the coming winter. With salt prices on the rise despite the broader economy’s tailspin, the cost to taxpayers may top $30 million.

We’ll pay whatever is necessary because keeping pavement free of ice and snow reduces crashes by up to 85 percent and preserves the mobility for goods, workers and consumers that underpins economic vitality. It’s also a political imperative. When Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Minnesota Department of Transportation slashed its snow plowing budget in 2003, a public outcry forced a hasty restoration of full service.

Steve Lund, MnDOT’s chief maintenance engineer, said the state’s current contract with four salt suppliers, including Minnesota-based Cargill Inc., will run 10 to 15 percent higher than a year ago. It calls for delivery of 225,000 tons of salt for state highways and another 245,000 tons for 376 counties and cities that joined MnDOT’s cooperative purchasing venture earlier this year.

Most of Minnesota’s salt comes up the Mississippi River by barge from mines in Louisiana and Missouri, then is distributed by truck to storage depots around the state. Prices range mostly from $50 to $70 a ton, depending on shipment quantities and the delivery point’s distance from terminals in Duluth and along the Mississippi. But Lund said remote Roseau County in northwest Minnesota will pay as much as $75 a ton.

Officials in some other states are reporting prices twice that much, which has led to official investigations in Illinois and Ohio. But the Salt Institute trade association insists that there’s no market chicanery or underlying shortage of salt to blame.

Salt supplies are “inexhaustible,” said institute president Dick Hanneman. Still, the combination of a snowy winter of 2007-08 in much of the East and Midwest and a host of shipping challenges squeezed the supply chain nearly dry, he said.

Last winter’s incessant storms to our south and east left the salt “pipeline” from mines to roads practically empty by spring, he said. Then spring floods and lock and dam closures on the Mississippi slowed efforts to replenish supplies even as five Midwestern states ordered an extra 2 million tons. When those bottlenecks eased, new economic realities in the shipping business took hold.

As fewer barges carry Upper Midwest grain down the Mississippi for export – more of the crop now goes to nearby ethanol plants – “upriver is no longer the cheap backhaul,” Hanneman said. “Not only are barges in heavy demand, but trucks, railcars and Great Lakes ships are, too.”

Minnesota’s road managers try to stretch their salt as far as possible, both to economize and to limit environmental damage. They spread anti-icing brine as storms approach and pre-wet salt for better adhesion to pavement and less bounce into ditches, streams and sewers. MnDOT trucks use pavement temperature sensors to help optimize spread rates and pinpoint conditions for alternative materials such as calcium chloride and magnesium chloride. They use less sand than in the past. Like the other alternatives, it also pollutes, and it has proven largely ineffective for improving traction, Lund said.

Besides, said Dave Robley, president of the Minnesota County Engineers Association, “Salt is real effective and it’s still cheaper than any other product.”

That’s true even though its price in Alexandria, where Robley is the Douglas County engineer, has doubled in the past five years. Meanwhile, many rural road managers have cut back plowing and de-icing to a single bare wheel track on lightly traveled routes, he said. MnDOT’s busier state highways still get the clear-pavement treatment.

Robley and Lund both said they have plenty of salt on hand and supplier contracts for more if conditions demand it. “We go into winter with our bins full,” Lund said. Said Robley: “We actually have a little more on hand than usual at this time of year.”

That’s good news for Minnesota drivers. We depend on safe, speedy travel, no matter the weather, to keep Minnesota productive and prosperous. Now, let’s give all Minnesota’s transportation needs the same priority that we give salt.