Pittsburgh officials ask for patience as city battles storms with diminished salt supply

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Pittsburgh officials were asking the public to be patient as the city tries to cope with the same low-salt diet that has been forced on other municipalities this winter.

With another storm expected overnight, operations director Guy Costa said the city was expecting delivery of 500 tons of rock salt during the day -- an amount that is about half of what typically is used to deal with 1 inch of snow. The city also expects to have 500 tons of a mixture of sand and granulated limestone, which will be sprayed with liquid calcium, a melting agent. Another 500 tons of salt is due to arrive on Tuesday, he said.

"We want to remind people, if they have to go out tonight, to please drive cautiously," Mr. Costa said.

If the forecast 2 to 4 inches of snow materializes, crews will focus on plowing and treating main roads first, and will try to stretch the supply of salt and anti-skid material by treating hills, curves, intersections and school zones, he said.

"Our plows are ready to go. Our trucks are ready to go," Mr. Costa said.

The city and other municipalities have said their rock salt contractor, American Rock Salt, based in New York state, has been unable to fill their orders, delivering much less than the requested amounts. "Everyone's doing the best we can with the resources we have," Mr. Costa said. He said this winter's weather is the worst he's encounted in 25 years of working for the city.

A reporter's call to American Rock Salt was transferred to a recorded message that says the company has been mining salt continuously since December and will continue to do so. "Our focus must remain on mining operations so we are unable to respond to requests for interviews," the recording says.

The city bought 300 tons of salt from the Pennsylvania Turnpike last week, and used it all on Saturday, he said.

PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan said the department has adequate supplies on hand to deal with the expected storm. "It's tough to say what the rest of the winter will bring," he said.

Full crews will be out overnight treating state-maintained roads, Mr. Cowan said. PennDOT also is pre-treating roads with brine today to accelerate melting once the snow begins.

Allegheny County has 1,200 tons of salt and will focus on hills and intersections and "be judicious" in its use, according to a statement from County Manager William D. McKain and public works director Steve Johnson.

The county has orders in for more salt and is receiving shipments daily, albeit in smaller quantities, they said.

"We are ready as we can be for tonight and tomorrow's anticipated accumulation. The warm days on Wednesday through Saturday (when temperatures in the 40s and 50s are forecast) are welcome and will provide much needed relief in this effort. We don't anticipate being able to help other communities at this time, but we continue to monitor our deliveries, quantities and anticipated needs on a daily basis, and if that changes will certainly assist," they said.

The county's 911 center will have enhanced staffing and will monitor the storm's impact, said Alvin Henderson, emergency services director.

Widespread light snow showers overnight into Monday morning coated some southwestern Pennsylvania roads, just enough to create travel difficulties in spots. Several crashes were reported on city streets.

The snow and frigid temperatures prompted some school districts to operate on a delayed basis. Visit the website of KDKA-TV, the PG's news partner, for a complete list.

The National Weather Service in Pittsburgh has issued a winter weather advisory for all of Western Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland in effect from 7 p.m. until 1 p.m. Tuesday. The weather service said 2 to 4 inches of snow and sleet is expected with the precipitation beginning between 9 and midnight in Western Pennsylvania. Expect the most intense snow and sleet for about 3 to 5 hours after it begins.

The precipitation will taper off for a time overnight but snow will resume in time for the morning rush, the weather service said.

Mr. Costa said "our biggest fear is freezing rain," which would cause the salt supply to be quickly exhausted.

The HOV lanes will be closed tonight due to the storm, PennDOT announced. It will be determined overnight if the lanes will be open for morning rush hour, spokesman Steve Cowan said.

So far this season, Pittsburgh has had just over 54 inches of snow. The normal total for an entire winter season is 42 inches.

For updated advisories and watches, visit the website of the National Weather Service. The latest conditions and forecast are available from the Post-Gazette's weather page.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published February 17, 2014 5:36 AM

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