WASHINGTON – Maryland State Highway Administration officials are betting $2 million that this winter will be as mild as the last.
The state’s budget for snow removal is only $20.6 million for this winter, more than $2 million less than the average winter budget for the last six years.
“We feel comfortable with the $20.6 million because we have had two really mild winters in the last two years,” said Rose Muhlhausen, an SHA spokeswoman.
Last winter, the state spent only about $15 million to keep the roads clear. It can take comfort in the National Weather Service forecast for this winter in the region, which it says will be warmer and drier than usual.
Should the snows fall, the SHA has up to 2,400 employees and contract workers available, with 2,000 pieces of equipment and more than 230,000 tons of salt on hand this year. In an average year, the state goes through 148,036 tons of salt.
Ten new advanced snowplows, called Wing Plows, will also be used this year.
“The harsh winters of 1994 and 1996 showed that the team was up to the task and we will provide the same quality service this year,” said SHA Administrator Parker Williams.
During the blizzard of 1996, the SHA spent almost $60 million on the roadways and dumped 406,927 tons of salt. About $38 million was spent during the ice storms of 1994.
Unseasonably warm temperatures this fall have made highway travel “a walk in the park so far this year,” said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police.
But some local governments are not taking any chances with winter weather: Frederick has budgeted $205,000 for snow removal this year, the same as last year.
“We are prepared for anything,” said Frederick Public Works Director Fred Eisenhart. More than half of the city’s snow budget goes toward 3,000 tons of salt, he said.
Mantill Williams, a spokesman for the Potomac chapter of the American Automobile Association, said that although AAA expects a mild winter, “we have heard from meteorologists that it will be more severe than last year.”
While the state police also expect a mild and dry winter this year, Piringer said they are prepared for anything.
“We have extra funding and personnel available for the holidays,” said Piringer.
He advises motorists to be prepared for harsh weather by carrying a blanket, flares, warm clothes and a shovel in their cars.
“People should plan ahead and leave early during the winter season,” he said.
Muhlhausen, too, said drivers should be prepared for wintry driving conditions, despite what the forecast says.
“If you get stuck on the roads in the winter, make sure you have warm clothes, an ice scraper and salt or kitty litter,” said Muhlhausen. “If you don’t have to travel during snowstorms, don’t.”
The AAA’s Williams said a breakdown during winter “could be a really dangerous situation.”
“If you find yourself stranded during a storm, don’t leave your car because it provides excellent shelter,” he said. “You should also carry a cell phone so that you can call for help.”
But sometimes Mother Nature can trump even the safest and most prepared drivers, said Muhlhausen.
“If you are stuck in 4 feet of snow, you are just stuck,” she said.