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With snow approaching, Washington area officials wonder how to pay for plowing

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; B05

As the second major snowstorm of the winter bears down on Washington this weekend, the budgets that keep the plows rolling are as exhausted as the crews who drive them.

Even before a surprise storm swept in last weekend, Maryland, Virginia and the District had spent millions more than their annual budgets allowed. That blast, and an overnight snowfall that ended Wednesday, sank budgets deeper into the red with weeks of winter weather still ahead.

Although it has snowed as late as April in the Washington region, the season generally ends in March. If that's the case this year, Maryland and Virginia will have three months remaining in their fiscal year to find money to close the budget gap caused by snow. The District follows the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

"What non-safety-critical things can we cut back on -- line striping, litter pickup, nonessential signs, mowing?" asked David Buck of Maryland's State Highway Administration. "We're going to be approaching $50 million pretty soon, though it's still a moving target. It's already been spectacular, and we've got a lot of winter left."

The need to find millions more to pay for snow removal comes at a time when the legislatures in Richmond and Annapolis are grappling with dire revenue shortfalls for the budget year that begins July 1. The additional tens of millions for snow plowing in the current fiscal year will probably necessitate cuts in other areas.

"In the past, we've gotten budget amendments to pay these bills," Buck said. "This time around, the long and short of it is that the money's just not there. We knew that going into this winter."

Budgeting for snow removal requires a crystal ball and, in lean financial years, the guts to bet against the wrath of Mother Nature.

The average annual cost of snow removal in Maryland has been just short of $45 million. This year's budget was pegged at $26 million. Before last weekend's storm and Wednesday's sub-six inches (depths varied), the tally was already more than $36 million.

"It's safe to say that it will be several million more for last weekend," Buck said.

The storm predicted to begin Friday and continue until late Saturday will be the third weekend snowfall of the season.

"From a transportation point of view, it's good, because there are fewer vehicles on the road and that makes it easier to plow," Buck said. "But from an expense point of view, it's a pain, because it's all overtime pay."

Overtime is a bigger issue in Maryland, where about 35 percent of the Highway Administration crews are state workers who receive overtime, than in Northern Virginia, where 90 percent of the work is handled by contractors.

The big blast that delivered about two feet of snow in December cost the Highway Administration $20 million, and about $7 million more was spent by five other Maryland agencies that clear roadways.

The Virginia Department of Transportation, which has endured layoffs and service cuts in the face of declining revenue, budgeted $27.6 million to plow streets in Northern Virginia this winter but had spent about $36 million after last weekend.

In playing the budget gamble for Northern Virginia snow, officials allocated more than it cost each year from 2005 to 2008, but $5 million less than last year's expenditure. Statewide, VDOT has spent the $79 million budgeted and is dipping into a $25 million reserve fund. After that is exhausted, money will be siphoned from maintenance programs.

The District, with $6.2 million budgeted for snow this season, spent more than $4 million on the December storm alone. The budgeted amount seemed reasonable before snow began falling, $1.4 million less than was spent in 2007, but a good bit more than the cost of snow removal during the past two years.

"Our budget is $6.2 [million], and we have reached our budget," said Karyn LeBlanc, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Transportation. "I don't have any new numbers and really won't until the season ends and we can tally it up. They are predicting another storm for next Wednesday as well, so it is too difficult to estimate at this point."

The cost of this weekend's storm could rival that of the December snow.

"Big whopper comes to mind. That's not a technical term," Buck said as he eyed the weekend forecast. "But we can only deal with what nature gives us. We have to keep going."

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