Wimpy winter delivers a fat dividend

Posted: February 29, 2012

For John Davis, it was a dream winter - over by Halloween.

That would have been just after a freak Oct. 29 storm of heavy, wet snow collapsed tree limbs, ripped down power lines and set Davis and his public-works colleagues throughout the region to worrying: Here we go again.

But after back-to-back brutal winters, neither Davis - nor his peers nor the best minds of meteorology - imagined that storm would be the very worst of the "winter" of 2011-12.

"Ordinarily you spend the winter plowing or getting ready for plowing," said Davis, public-works chief in Doylestown, Bucks County, where the tight streets and well-used sidewalks make snow removal an adventure.

This winter, he's been able to spend time savoring cold-cash savings, as have highway departments on both sides of the river.

Heading into March, they have a Dead Sea's worth of salt stuffed into their overflowing storage domes. "Our salt bin is full," said Dan Lutz, the Upper Darby Township, Delaware County, public-works chief.

At a time when government entities are trying to squeeze the last measures of copper from every penny, nature's surprising generosity is more than welcome, around here and in much of the nation - Valdez, Alaska, notwithstanding.

The meteorological winter that ended officially on Wednesday was the fourth-warmest in Philadelphia in 138 years of record-keeping, with an average temperature of 40.8 The season's 4 inches of snow placed it in a tie for No. 4 on the least-snowy list.

The upshot?

Doylestown has spent a mere $2,300.47 on salt since Jan. 1, said Davis. Last year it shelled out seven times that much. It didn't have to part with a penny for equipment rentals, compared with $28,000 during the record snowy winter of two years ago.

So far, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has used just $6.2 million, or one-fifth of its $31.8 million snow-and-ice-fighting budget.

Its New Jersey counterpart has spent $14.6 million, compared with $56 million last winter. Camden County has used only $87,000 of the $400,000 it set aside.

Philadelphia's $1.5 million snow-fighting expenditures are a tenth of last season's $15 million.

After depositing close to 10 feet of snow upon the region over the two previous winters, what explains nature's sudden benignity?

Well, it wasn't because the world suddenly got warmer. January actually was the chilliest January worldwide since 2008, according to the National Climate Data Center.

The difference locally this winter has been a persistent Arctic air-pressure pattern that has blocked cold air from plunging south into the United States east of the Rockies, said Paul Knight, meteorologist professor at Pennsylvania State University and the state climatologist.

Philadelphia, and much of North America, spent the winter on "the lone warm island in the hemisphere," he said.

Meanwhile, other neighborhoods of the northern hemisphere have paid the price. Last month it snowed in Rome. And, boy has it snowed in Valdez. The 26 inches that fell Sunday and Monday brought the seasonal total to 403.9 at Valdez airport - or 101 times the total at Philadelphia International Airport.

For parts of Chester and Bucks Counties, the Halloween weekend snow by far exceeded any snowfalls during the actual winter.

Still, that has not meant that area road crews have been on spring break.

"They do other roadway maintenance activities such as filling potholes, fixing guide rails, painting over graffiti, clearing brush, and picking up litter," said New Jersey Transportation Department spokesman Joe Dee.

And don't expect a tax refund: All money is spoken for. PennDOT is putting any winter surplus toward road resurfacing and bridge repairs, said spokesman Eugene Blaum.

"We can use the savings for other things," said Camden County Freeholder Ian Leonard, adding that the money would be recirculated into the general fund.

"It allows us to get other things done," said Doylestown's Davis. It will be easier for the borough to make sign repairs, spruce up parks, and tend to storm drains, he added.

Some of Upper Darby's surplus will have to go toward offsetting skyrocketing costs of fuel, said Lutz. The mild winter has depressed demand and, thus, prices for natural gas, said Terence Fitzpatrick, president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, but refined-gasoline prices have gone in the other direction.

But Lutz is not alone in his gratitude for a low-cost snow-fighting winter.

Said Davis: "A year like this is certainly welcome."

Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-761-8423 or twood@phillynews.com

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