Erin Ferrell didn’t have a problem with Naperville’s decision to try and conserve road salt amid a regional salt shortage. That is, until she attempted to drive to work on Wednesday morning.
“You couldn’t even see the lanes that you were driving in,” said Ferrell, 31, who said it took her 30 minutes to drive a little over a mile from her home in Naperville to I-55 Stevenson Expressway, then another 1 1/2 hours to get to the school where she teaches in Western Springs.
“It was dangerous, people didn’t know where to go,” she said. “Intersections were so full of snow, when people were trying to turn all people were doing was fishtailing out.”
Another 7 inches of snow dumped itself across the Chicago area Wednesday, giving drivers like Ferrell a first-hand look at what salt rationing and plowing reductions looked like on the streets; as municipal leaders warned it may be the new normal as communities confront maxed out budgets and empty salt domes with several weeks remaining yet this winter.
“It's not as clean a job as we would normally do and take pride in,” said Dale Schepers, Public Works Director in Tinley Park, where crews have dialed down the amount of salting on some local roads and focused instead on intersections, curves and hills.
“We said, ‘Look, (we've had) quite a few events so far. The pattern's gonna stay the same; change the gameplan,’” Schepers said.
Long before the first snowfall, 671 municipalities across Illinois order road salt through the Illinois Joint Purchasing Program, an initiative in which the state purchases materials in bulk for local municipalities. The program allows communities to buy salt at a locked-in price without having to shop at various vendors, said Mike Claffey, spokesman for Central Management Services, which oversees the program.
But when salt supplies run out, communities must go back to their supplier to re-order, and the state is no longer involved, Claffey said. And demand for new supplies of salt is so high, many community officials are being told it could take 15 to 20 days for new orders, officials said.
"Customer orders have surged due to the continued cold weather and snow events across the country,” said Denise Lauer, Spokesperson for Chicago-based Morton Salt, one of several companies that manufactures road salt.
To deal with the shortages, community leaders have announced a wide range of strategies for snowy days to come:
In Naperville, main roads will be salted as usual, while neighborhood streets would get a mix of salt and sand only at hills, curves and intersections. In Lombard, officials planned to use half the amount of salt as usual. Oak Park administrators are advising crews to apply salt to all main streets. But East/West streets would only be salted once and North/South streets would only be salted at intersections.
Glenview crews have been instructed to wait until the end of a snowstorm to put out a layer of salt. While the Illinois Department of Transportation on Wednesday said it has used more than 606,000 tons of salt, it has “adequate” supplies remaining, and access to more.
Arlington Heights officials plan to plow more and salt less, using salt only on main roads and intersections.
Lake Forest Public Works Director Mike Thomas said they’re plowing as often as they can and focusing their salt efforts in intersections, on hills and on main roadways. He said the city has 600 tons of salt left and is looking to order more salt.
He’s not as concerned about snow fall at this point, he said, but is more worried about black ice conditions in the spring.
“What keeps me up at night is having enough salt for March,” he said.
In Wilmette, leaders decided to use salt only on major streets and those with schools or public facilities.
“It’s cleaning up slowly, but knock on wood, it is pretty quiet out there and we’re not seeing any problems,” Wilmette police dispatcher Basil Reavis said.
And in Geneva, Lake Zurich, Elmhurst, Libertyville and Northbrook, officials plan to mix remaining salt with sand to make supplies last longer, officials said.
Matthew Earle, a 29-year-old Oak Park resident, who works at a hospital in Des Plaines, said he had his own strategy for avoiding a long drive through Wednesday’s snow. He stayed home.
“There was only one set of tire tracks leaving my alley,” Earle said. “Looks like a lot of other people stayed home as well.”
Tribune reporters Kate Jacobson, Alexandra Chachkevitch, Karen Ann Cullotta, Sally Ho, Quan Truong, Stephanie Baer, Dan Waters, Annemarie Mannion and Vikki Ortiz Healy contributed.
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