ANNAPOLIS – When Marylanders see white these days, the State Highway Administration sees red.
The agency responsible for clearing snow from Maryland highways is already $4.6 million over its $21 million budget in removal costs this winter. That was before this week’s wintry mix of snow, sleet and rain.
And local governments are facing similar plights as inclement weather puts a damper on county coffers. From Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, already tight budgets are shrinking as fast as salt stockpiles.
With the season only half over, officials say there is no way to know how much debt they will incur by spring.
“We track it all, and come April we’ll go before the Legislature and show where we need adjustments,” said SHA spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar.
Lawmakers have always approved budget amendments, she said, the last one in 2001 when the state spent more than $35.4 million.
Snow removal has cost the state more than $20 million in five of the past nine years. Edgar said the agency keeps its expense forecasts modest, which leads to cost overruns during harsh winters.
The State Highway Administration maintains 16,300 lane miles of road, employing as many as 2,400 workers and 2,000 vehicles for large storms.
Ninety-three sites housed 246,000 tons of salt at the start of the season. Because of the wetter-than-usual weather, officials purchased another 140,000 tons earlier this month.
Ice storms in 1996 cost the state more than $58.1 million. Ever since, snow removal has averaged $26.8 million per year, but a warm 2002 winter season kept the administration under budget.
“I usually breathe a sigh of relief after March 15,” Edgar said.
But county governments aren’t always so fortunate. Cost overruns would equate to fewer road projects as weather turns nice.
“I haven’t gotten a budget printout to date, but if we’re not over budget, we’re right at that right now,” said J. Ted Wolford, director of the Washington County highway department. The department’s winter snow budget is $498,000.
Linda Rickey, superintendent of highways for Harford County, said her department has used about 70 percent of the $810,000 set aside for snow removal.
“And we still have February to go,” she said.
In Talbot County, deficits mean less resurfacing in the spring.
Richard Ball, county roads superintendent, said his department typically resurfaces 70 miles of new road each year.
While the county has used about two thirds of its $10,000 budget, he said any overrun could knock down springtime resurfacing to between 50 and 60 miles.
“I’m optimistic this is going to be the end of it,” Ball said during Wednesday’s sleet. “We’ve been lucky in that bad weather is going north of us.”