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DOT gets financial break from snow this year
Winter weather season is Thanksgiving to Easter, says spokeswoman
Ronald Burkhalter, an equipment operator, checks to make sure a snow plow is properly connected to a truck Wednesday in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

An easier season

A harsh winter in 2011 left Georgia roads icy and DOT crews scrambling to clear them. This year's warmer weather has given both workers and the agency's budget a welcome break.


Total man hours: 27,950

Cost of man hours: $626,110

Total equipment cost: $1,019,234

Total material cost: $924,524

Overall winter weather cost: $2,587,868


Total man hours: 842

Cost of man hours: $19,536

Total equipment cost: $12,489

Total material cost: $16,465

Overall winter weather cost: $48,490

Note: Fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30; currently in FY2012

Source: Department of Transportation


Unless winter decides to take a wicked turn in the next few weeks, area road crews can celebrate a season virtually free of scraping away packed ice and snow.

"Our last two blizzards came in March, so we are still wary," said Teri Pope, Georgia Department of Transportation's Gainesville-based spokeswoman. "Typically, we say the winter weather season in Northeast Georgia is Thanksgiving to Easter."

Still, so far, so good.

This year, the DOT has spent $48,490 combating the elements statewide, all in the 21-county District 1 region of Northeast Georgia, including Hall.

That amount compares to nearly $2.6 million last winter and $1.4 million in the 2009-10 winter in District 1 alone. But going back further, the lowest amount the state has spent in District 1 in recent years on winter work was $296,940 during the 2005-06 winter.

"This (year's total cost) is the smallest amount that I can remember," said Pope, a longtime DOT spokeswoman.

Last year was one of the roughest winters in memory for many area residents. In addition to a rare Christmas Day snow, the area was slammed by a storm in January that brought snow and ice, marooning many people in their homes for most of a work week.

Crews were out in force, clearing roads and putting down salt and stone.

But it had little effect, especially at first, after overnight subfreezing temperatures refroze whatever had melted during the day from sunshine and materials put down by workers.

The DOT logged a staggering 27,950 personnel hours, costing $626,110. Equipment costs were $1,019,234 and materials rang up a bill of $942,524.

"This season, our work has only occurred in nine of our 21 counties," Pope said.

Towns County has received the most winter weather with DOT staff logging 172 hours battling rough weather, costing $19,536. The DOT has spent $12,489 on equipment and $16,465 on materials.

Hall County has received a strong dose of rain this year, helping raise the level of Lake Lanier, and a few blasts of Arctic air. But the main two winter culprits — frigid air and strong chance of precipitation — haven't meshed to produce snow or the much-dreaded freezing rain.

All that could change in March, which is known for quirky and brutal turns in weather, from windy days to tornados and snowstorms.

The DOT pulls from its routine maintenance budget to pay for snow clearing, so if it can keep its snowplows parked, "we'll be able to do our planned maintenance activities, like replacing guardrail, doing shoulder rebuilding and those types of things," Pope said.

It would mean "being able to do the normal things we need to do, instead of having to respond to an emergency situation," she added.

Bad winter weather "is not only a ding in your budget, but it's also very stressful and very dangerous (for road crews)," Pope said.

"Last year, we had six days of consecutive 12-hour shifts. That really wears you down mentally and physically, and it's an expense to the families as well. Daddies don't get to have snowball fights with their kids."

The harshness of last year's winter caught many governments off guard.

The DOT particularly caught flak over its storm response, as the harsh, icy weather basically crippled interstate travel to Atlanta.

Officials began revisiting and revising storm response plans. Policy, equipment and personnel were all part of the review.

"Because of the overwhelming nature of last year's snowfall, we did spend a little money in purchasing a new spreader box for a truck and (other equipment) like that," said David Dockery, Gainesville's public works director.

"This year, on one day, we prepared a plow and a spreader just in case ... but we didn't mobilize anybody," he said. "Knock on wood so far - we've been fortunate in that respect."

The city has money set aside for equipment costs and buying salt and gravel.

"This year, we will hopefully use that money on asphalt and concrete and more of that kind of stuff ... for maintenance, repair, building some sidewalks, paving some streets," Dockery said. "(The mild winter) is a good thing."

Another casualty of harsh winters is the condition of road surfaces after storms strike.

A fluctuation in temperatures, causing a "freeze-thaw" effect on roads, creates potholes and other jagged cracks on roads.

That's normal during winter, but the problem is usually made worse by ice, snow and rain , said Jimmy Hightower, Hall County's road maintenance supervisor.

And so far this winter, "we've seen no increase in potholes," he said.

"It's definitely been a benefit not to have to battle with the wintertime weather, like last year," Hightower said.