RICHMOND, Va. - The harsh winter busted the highway snow removal budgets in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, challenging those states to pay the bills without siphoning too much money from warm-weather maintenance to the detriment of the motoring public.
Highway officials say they believe they have the resources to avoid any major negative effects for travelers as spring begins. They are especially committed to filling the huge number of potholes left by the relentless freeze-and-thaw cycle, calling them a safety issue that cannot be ignored no matter the cost.
But coping with winter's fury has been difficult and expensive.
Brent Walker, spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Transportation, said "this winter has been brutal, the likes we haven't seen in many years." Through March 12, the department had gone about $8 million over its nearly $55 million snow removal budget, which is based on the average spent in the state over the last several years.
Budget-wise, it's been even worse for Virginia and Maryland. Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tamara Rollison said the state might spend nearly double its $157 million snow removal budget. And Maryland's State Highway Administration estimates it will spend more than $130 million, obliterating its $46 million budget.
Many localities also are feeling the pinch. In Maryland, Montgomery County has spent more than triple its $8.5 million snow removal budget while Prince George's County has also spent more than three times the $1.5 million it budgeted for snow removal materials, officials say.
The practical consequences for motorists remain to be seen. Preliminary indications are that they might have to look at taller grass along highway rights-of-way and ride on certain rough stretches a little bit longer.
"Anytime we are over budget we shift monies from our maintenance operations which, if it becomes very significant, would affect maintenance type activities like mowing and resurfacing, to name a few," Walker said.
However, he said the state's maintenance hit should be softened by a $20 million increase over projected fuel taxes and other revenues that support highway maintenance and construction.
Early spring snow is not uncommon in Maryland, particularly in the western mountains, so the State Highway Administration is waiting until all the salting and plowing is done to determine how to adjust, spokesman David Buck said.
He said in an email that in 2010, when winter spending reached $124 million, the SHA cut back on mowing, deferred resurfacing projects until the next year and curtailed other maintenance activities.
"In 2010 and again in 2014, we will make every effort to minimize any impacts to the motorists and assure travelers that we will perform all safety related tasks," he said. He added that "the average Maryland motorist should not notice any significant difference" in travel.
Rollison said Virginia might push back the completion date on some paving projects and mow less frequently, although no decisions have been made. State highway officials also have mentioned the possibility of delaying some equipment purchases, but have offered no specifics.
"The things that are most noticeable are potholes," Rollinson said. "We have a bumper crop of potholes, and we will prioritize that. Snow removal and pothole repair are core critical functions."
Other officials offered similar comments.
"The pothole situation is as bad as we've seen in decades," said Walker in West Virginia. He said the state will spend about $12 million more than the normal $18 million on patching damaged roads.
Buck said Maryland also will spend more than normal on pothole repair. Montgomery County filled 1,600 potholes during a five-day period last month and will continue that emphasis, and Prince George's County is in the midst of a two-week pothole blitz, officials in those counties said.