Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A word on road salt

That's not snow.
(Boylston Street south of Boston Common)
There's been some grief on the Internet and the Twitterverse about the heaps of road salt thrown about the roads in Boston in the last couple of days. What happened—I think—is that several inches of snow were predicted (albeit with a lot of doubt if you actually read the forecast discussion) and the city preemptively salted the roads. No snow fell, the salt got ground up, and high winds wafted it in to the air. It's pretty gross. And it's really bad for your bike.

Yes, Massachusetts oversalts and overplows. A moderate snowstorm on a Sunday morning will see thousands of plows fanned out across the state. I've driven during a storm and seen phalanxes of 10 plows stretched across three lanes, scraping the road clean from side to side, even though there wasn't that much to push off. Cities take a bit longer, but they generally get the roads clean. And they salt the hell out of the roads, apparently. Every guy with a landscaping truck has a state plow contract, and by golly they'll get them roads down to pavement. Even if they already are.

But then there's Minnesota. Unless there is heavy snow, they don't touch the roads. A few inches? It will get blown off after a while. If it's cold, that's the case, and salt won't do much good. But when there's more snow, and it's warmer, it gets compressed and if temperatures then fall it freezes solid. If there is heavy snow, there are not enough plows to go around, and roads don't get cleared as quickly as they should. And in the cities? They plow the day after the storm, and don't even bother to push the snow off of corners, so what they're really doing is plowing powder off the previously compressed snow leaving ridges of ice all winter on every side street. You have to move your car so they can plow to the curb on all streets, but by the time everyone has moved their cars there's compressed snow all over the place. If it's -5 by the time the plows come around, they don't do too much good.

They also don't salt pretty much ever. Sometimes it's too cold, but sometimes a couple inches of snow falls, melts a little, turns to a sheet of ice and then freezes, at which point the streets are skating rinks. There is an issue of lakes becoming saltier—which is less of an issue in Boston where most runoff finds its way in to the already-salty ocean—but judicious use of road salt when it's needed would be nice.

I'm sure there's a happy medium between these approaches. If anything, maybe in Boston we can get them to not salt the roads until it actually snows. And, good golly, the sidewalks.

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