What it cost to keep NJ’s highways safe and salted through all those winter storms

Thirty-four ‘winter events’ forced three times more spending than last year on things like rock salt and brine
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Feb. 1, 2021: A person waits for a snow plow to pass before crossing the street in Fort Lee in the midst of a major storm.

Dozens of winter storms that have left piles of snow and ice across New Jersey have also put a dent in the state budget.

The Department of Transportation has spent more than $120 million on “winter operations” to help keep state highways safe for motorists, officials said.

That’s almost three times what was needed for the same purpose during the 2019-2020 winter season.

To cover the increase in spending this winter on things like rock salt and brine, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is planning to add $95 million onto what was originally earmarked for winter operations, according to the latest budget documents released by the Department of Treasury.

The supplemental spending is one of dozens of budget adjustments that routinely occur around this time each year as Treasury officials fine-tune projections for the remaining months of the state’s July 1 to June 30 fiscal year.

In all, 34 different “winter events” hit New Jersey through February 23, said Stephen Schapiro, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation. That’s up from the previous year, when there were 26, he said.

Mountains of salt, lakes of brine

To keep state highways safe throughout the 2020-2021 winter season, road crews have used 216,264 tons of salt and 349,822 gallons of liquid calcium. They also put down 105,910 gallons of brine, Schapiro said.

Each substance has its own purpose in keeping snow and ice from causing unsafe driving conditions.

“Liquid calcium is applied to salt to improve its effectiveness at lower temperatures,” Schapiro said. “Brine is used to pre-treat highways to prevent snow from adhering to road surfaces. The brine solution is a less concentrated form of salt, as about 80 percent is water, which means it is more environmentally friendly.”

Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
File photo: A front loader dumps salt into a bucket truck plower in prepartion for a coming storm

With fewer winter storms, the 2019-2020 winter season was far less costly for the state’s bottom line. Total spending on last winter’s operations came in at $41.5 million, according to Schapiro. That contrasts with the$120.9 million that has been spent this winter.

However, the high frequency of storms in New Jersey this winter did help the state conserve some on the use of brine compared to last winter, when nearly 271,000 gallons were needed.

“Less brine was used this year compared with last year because with storms every few days [this year], there was residual salt on the roads,” Schapiro said. “Therefore, a pretreatment of brine was not required.”

Supplemental spending is routine

Supplemental spending to cover the cost of winter operations is a routine occurrence due to the unpredictable nature of winter weather.

Treasury records indicate the 2014-2015 winter season was the state’s costliest over the last decade, requiring $113 million in supplemental spending for winter operations, while no supplemental spending at all was requested for the 2011-2012 winter season.

“It is almost impossible to budget for these costs,” Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Sciortino said.

“Historically, the state has under-budgeted in this area so as not to encumber valuable resources on costs that may not come to fruition when we have so many other known priorities in need of funding,” she said.

In all, the Murphy administration is requesting $872 million in supplemental spending for the remainder of the 2021 fiscal year, according to the budget documents released by Treasury. That would push total spending up from the just over $40 billion that was originally appropriated to an estimated $41.2 billion.

In addition to the latest request for winter operations, other notable fiscal year 2021 supplemental spending items include $55.5 million in funding for a major corporate tax-incentive law that Murphy and lawmakers enacted in January, and $58 million for a statewide police body-camera initiative approved in December.

But unlike some years when state tax collections have trailed projections at this point in the fiscal year, the Murphy administration is planning to end the 2021 fiscal year in a few months with a substantial surplus, even after covering all the supplemental spending items.

Helping the cause are over $1 billion in so-called budget lapses, a catchall term for specific line-item spending that is now anticipated to come in lower than was projected when the appropriations bill was signed into law at the beginning of the fiscal year.

Savings from public worker furloughs implemented in response to budget problems triggered by the coronavirus pandemic are among the reported lapses for the 2021 fiscal year, according to the budget documents.

The 2021 fiscal year budget also received a significant boost from COVID-19 emergency borrowing by the state of more than $4 billion without voter approval last year.