Price tag for clearing snow from state highways up over $100 million

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By Tom LoBianco

The historic snowstorms of this winter also come with a historic price tag of more than $100 million, the state transportation department said Monday.

And that’s just an early guess, as road crews are still working to clear secondary lanes and literally remove snow from some of the areas which went untouched over the last two weeks of snow, Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley told a state budget committee.

“We’re already well over $100 million,” she said.

Between December’s snowstorms, a few relative dustings in January and the past two knockout blizzards, the state is on track to almost double what it normally lays out for snow removal annually, Swaim-Staley said.

The state normally budgets between $55 and $60 million a year, she said.

And like the state government, the historic snowstorms have also forced virtually every local jurisdiction to spend far more on snow removal than had been budgeted .

Members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment dug through the hard numbers on transportation projects and financing, but couldn’t ignore the snowstorms the state is still digging out from under.

“The roads take quite a beating, both in terms of snow removal and potholes,” said Delegate Murray Levy, Southern Maryland Democrat.

Part of the expensive cleanup were the pricey wages paid out to workers who were paid double for working on days when the state government was shut down last week.

Roughly half the work was done in-house and the other half was contracted out, Swaim-Staley told lawmakers.

Out of a total proposed transportation budget of about $3.9 billion, the snow removal costs might not seem like much. But transportation officials, like everyone else in state government, have struggled to cut spending as revenue shortfalls have forced Gov. Martin O’Malley to make reductions across every agency.

The money for this year’s cleanup will likely have to come from reduced maintenance and cuts to construction projects, Swaim-Staley said.

“Our challenge is going to be finding the funding to do that,” she said.

The handful of lawmakers at the budget subcommittee meeting were laudatory of the transportation department’s work.

Delegate Bill Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he noticed a line of dump trucks on a state highway recently, preparing to haul away snow, and he said he was impressed by the show of snow-removing force.

“It was like something out of a weird movie, you have all staged something extraordinary,” Bronrott said.

Bronrott also delivered a warm mea culpa to Swaim-Staley and state highway crews who he – along with some other Montgomery County Democrats – had said did a terrible job of clearing the roads last week.

“We felt we were treated sort of subpar,” Bronrott said. “That was before part two, which became a historic blizzard. Now we want to thank you.”

Levy had a little fun with the clearly exculpatory Bronrott.

“My colleague over here just wanted you to clear out his driveway,” Levy told Swaim-Staley to a roomful of laughs.

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.
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