Who knows how much it will snow in any given winter season?
Weather forecasters seem to think they do: Each November they trot out long-range predictions of snowfall totals down to the tenths of inches.
Bruce Beaver knows better than to rely on those forecasts.
As public works director in South Park, he has led the battle to keep township roads and streets clear of snow and ice for the past 14 years.
"There's no human being on the face of this planet who can predict the weather," he said. "They've been wrong as many times as they've been right. They might as well throw a dart at a dartboard."
Pittsburgh and its suburbs have seen the best and worst of times in recent years. February 2010 was the snowiest month in recorded history here, with nearly 49 inches that broke the old record by 8.5 inches.
That caused many municipalities to load up on road salt for last winter only to bask in a mild season -- 29.3 inches of snow from December through February, well below the seasonal average of about 40 inches. Some communities struggled for places to store their unused supplies.
Monroeville, for instance, ordered 8,000 tons of salt and was required by contract to take shipment of at least 6,400 tons but could not. "We didn't have the room to store it," said Mike Adams, public works director.
Preparing for winter involves a certain amount of guesswork that begins in the summer, when municipalities order salt. More than 100 are part of a cooperative purchasing plan overseen by the South Hills Area Council of Governments. The towns supply an estimate of what they will need and are required to take delivery of at least 80 percent of that amount by June 30.
When a majority of them could not do that last season because of no storage space, SHACOG negotiated an extension. The supplier, Cargill Inc., agreed to store the undelivered salt at no charge to municipalities if they took delivery by Dec. 31, said Lou Gorski, SHACOG executive director.
The total ordered was down this year from 176,000 tons to 111,000 tons because so many communities had surplus salt from last year to get them through December.
"We ordered less this year," said Mr. Beaver, whose township was one of those able to meet the original delivery deadline. By mid-January in what so far has been a relatively mild winter, South Park had used about a third of its 2,000-ton supply.
"Unlike most public service programs, it is impossible to accurately predict costs of snow and ice control," says an overview on Upper St. Clair's website. The community based its 2013 budget on 13-year averages for snowfall and the current salt price, adding a 10 percent contingency.
The price per ton of salt for SHACOG participants went up 86 cents from last winter, to $56.69. A fuel adjustment has since pushed it up to $57.04.
Cold fact: As of Wednesday, 24.6 inches of snow had been recorded for this season at Pittsburgh International Airport, compared with 18.6 inches at the same point in 2012.
PennDOT: the big mover
Snow removal in our area is handled by a melange of state, county and municipal forces. And winter, it would seem, is quite expensive.
The biggest snow pusher is the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, with an army of nearly 200 truck drivers, foremen, mechanics and supervisory personnel in Allegheny County. More than 70 trucks load up at 16 salt stockpiles before a storm.
PennDOT is responsible for more than 3,500 lane-miles of roads in the county but has agreements with 90 municipalities, paying them to take care of about 1,400 lane-miles of state roads within their borders.
Penn Hills covers nearly 89 lane-miles of state roads within the municipality and is paid $111,497, second only to the city of Pittsburgh in state road mileage covered. At the other end of the spectrum, Wilmerding plows 0.34 miles of state-owned road and is reimbursed $373 for its trouble.
Monroeville covers 10.3 miles of state road and is paid $12,127; it is paid another $35,600 by Allegheny County to take care of several county-owned roads within the municipality.
"We're going to be out there anyway, so it's more efficient for us to do it and the response time is quicker," Mr. Adams said.
Winter maintenance budgets for the past three years illustrate the changing intensity of the task. This season's PennDOT budget for Allegheny County is $8.4 million. Last season, the department budgeted $10.7 million but spent only $5.6 million; the year before it spent $9.6 million.
Statewide, PennDOT has budgeted $188 million for this season after allocating $216 million last year but spending only $124 million, spokeswoman Erin Waters said. The surplus money went to other maintenance programs.
Based on a survey of counties and municipalities, the Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee in 2011 estimated that county and local governments spend $298 million per year on winter maintenance, or about 19 percent of their transportation budgets.
Cold fact: PennDOT used 19,700 tons of salt in Allegheny County last winter; the year before, it went through 49,500 tons.
The game plan
PennDOT snow-removal strategies vary depending on the type and severity of storms, but in all cases, interstate highways get top priority; other major routes come second; and secondary roads last. Most municipalities employ similar triage procedures.
In a lighter snowfall that doesn't require plowing, PennDOT expects to hit the interstates once an hour; other major roads every 90 minutes; and secondary routes every two hours. In what it calls a "plowing storm," those times are doubled.
South Park's nine-member crew typically has all roads clear within three hours of a moderate storm and six hours if accumulation is 6 inches or more, Mr. Beaver said.
Barring equipment breakdown or other unusual circumstances, Monroeville's crews usually have all roads passable within two hours after the snow stops falling, Mr. Adams said.
The biggest challenge in his township, according to Mr. Beaver, is hills. "We don't have one level mile of road in South Park," he said.
The Pittsburgh district is "one of the toughest populated areas in the world" from which to remove snow, Mr. Beaver said. "I think we all have the same problems, the slopes, the hills, the older neighborhoods that were designed before there were cars.
"All of the communities do a good job," he said. "It's a testament to our tenacity in Western Pennsylvania."
Cold fact: PennDOT snow removal vehicles are equipped with infrared sensors that give the driver the exact pavement temperature to assist in decisions of when and how much to treat roads.
Drivers and other residents can play a big part in successful snow removal and preserving safety in winter storms by following several basic common-sense guidelines, PennDOT and local public works departments say.
First and foremost is to postpone travel, if possible, during storms. It is very unusual in most populated areas of the county for roads to be snow-covered for more than several hours, so that trip to the grocery store to hoard toilet paper and milk is probably not necessary.
Residents are asked not to shovel snow onto roads; most municipalities have ordinances requiring sidewalks to be cleared within 24 or 48 hours of the end of a storm; those who must drive are urged to have winter tires, a supply of sand or salt, a shovel, a blanket and a flashlight.
Drivers also can do plow operators a huge favor by not parking along the street during storms; in some municipalities, doing so is illegal.
PennDOT recommends shoveling snow to the right side of the driveway (as you face the road) to reduce the chance of plows pushing snow back on it.
Cold fact: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says more than 125,000 people were seen in emergency rooms, doctors' offices and clinics for injuries suffered while shoveling snow in 2011, and more than 18,000 were injured using snowblowers.
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published January 31, 2013 5:00 AM