Winter's constant barrage eroding road salt supplies

It looks like Phil wasn't kidding around.

Just days after the Punxsutawney groundhog's Super Bowl Sunday prediction of six more weeks of winter, a treacherous mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain was expected to hit Western Pennsylvania Tuesday night and into this morning.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for virtually the entire state, including Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The warning, which took effect 7 p.m. Tuesday, continues until 1 p.m. today for the Pittsburgh area. Greene and western Fayette counties will be under a winter weather advisory for the same time, the only two places in Pennsylvania not under a winter storm warning.

Meteorologist Fred McMullen said the precipitation, a wintry mix of ice, snow and rain, was expected to begin before midnight and continue through this morning, with the possibility of ice that could bring down smaller tree branches.

No widespread power outages were expected, though the storm could make commuting a nightmare.

The forecast called for as much as a quarter-inch of ice and 3 to 7 inches of snow, with the heaviest accumulations north of Pittsburgh. In the city, the forecast called for 1 to 3 inches of snow and sleet overnight and an additional accumulation of about a half-inch during the day.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon to introduce Pittsburgh's new director of public works, Mike Gable said his crews were ready.

"I don't see it as a big storm. I think it's been a little hyped up right now," said Mr. Gable, a longtime Pittsburgh public works employee who spent the past year working as deputy director of public works for Allegheny County.

The city normally uses about 1,000 tons of salt per inch of snow. This winter, the city budgeted for about 44.5 inches of snow -- meaning it expected to use nearly 45,000 tons of salt -- and had gotten nearly 42.5 inches as of Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Gable said.

With nearly two more months of winter still to come, that means the city will likely spend more than the usual $2 million on salt, which sells for about $55 a ton.

Guy Costa, the city's chief operations officer, asked for patience in getting streets plowed and salted, adding that it can take 24 to 36 hours to get to every street.

Port Authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo said crews would work overnight to keep overhead lines on the Light Rail Transit system from icing if sleet or freezing rain falls. Light rail vehicles were to make trips after the end of service hours and the first LRVs out for the morning commute were equipped with sleet-cutter pantographs to scrape ice from the wires, she said.

In Shaler, officials issued a notice Tuesday that crews would be conserving salt, likely for the rest of the winter, because of dwindling stockpiles.

Bethel Park's director of community services, Jerry Duke, said the municipality's supply of salt is "getting pretty tight."

"We're getting some shipments. But the way this winter is going, as soon as we get it in, it's going right back out," Mr. Duke said. The municipality has started cutting into a reserve supply and will use anti-skid material to stretch the salt supply, although it hasn't reached that point, Mr. Duke said.

Monroeville manager Tim Little said the town has an adequate supply for now but is waiting on completion of a 2,000-ton shipment it ordered last week. Only a few hundred tons had arrived as of Tuesday morning, he said.

"Obviously, the rest of that tonnage has to be delivered for us to be OK as the weeks move on," he said.

Robinson has "an adequate supply right now," township manager Jeff Silka said. "We're confident."

After a low in the mid-20s Tuesday and a high just above freezing today, temperatures will fall into the teens tonight and barely breach the 20s on Thursday.

The weather service also issued a flood watch Tuesday for parts of Ohio, West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. The watch area includes Washington, Greene and Fayette counties. Heavy rain and snow melt will increase the risk of ice jam flooding on streams and creeks, it said.

Gov. Tom Corbett has directed PennDOT to temporarily waive restrictions on commercial drivers who haul road salt, extending the time they can drive without taking a rest break from 11 hours to 14 hours.

"Forecasts are calling for more storms in the next few days, and we want to take steps now to ensure that salt supplies are adequate to meet the mission to keep drivers moving," PennDOT Secretary Barry J. Schoch said.

An exemption also was granted to the rules limiting the number of hours a driver can work in a seven- or eight-day period. An earlier waiver was granted to haulers of home heating fuel.

On Tuesday morning, Sylvester Lighty hovered his hand near a heat lamp recently installed on the ceiling of the Liberty Avenue and 9th Street bus shelter.

It was 20 degrees outside, but Mr. Lighty, who lives a few blocks away, said he wasn't warming his hand, just curious about how much heat the lamp radiated.

The lamp is one of four that have been installed by Pittsburgh insurer Highmark Inc. since early January as part of an advertising campaign for Highmark's Community Blue health care plan, which is offered on the exchange.

The others are at Fifth Avenue and Ross Street; Reedsdale Street and Boyce Street; and Boulevard of the Allies near Stanwix Street.

They invite bus riders to "step in, warm up."

The advertisements went up shortly before Pittsburgh's first run-in with the polar vortex and the sub-zero temperatures that came with it and the heat lamps will remain for the "foreseeable future," said Doug Braunsdorf, a Highmark spokesman.

"It's good on a cold day," Mr. Lighty said. "It's good all the way around."

Robert Zullo:, 412-263-3909 and on Twitter @rczullo. Jon Schmitz, 412-263-1868 and on Twitter @pgtraffic. Richard Webner contributed.

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