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Oregon’s No Road Salt Policy Could Cost $40 Million a Day in Lost Productivity

Friday, November 14, 2014

 

Despite officials admitting rock salts are more effective for removing ice from roads than their current methods, a state ban on salting roads remains in-place that could cost Oregon's economy $40 million every day the state is shut down by snow and ice.

It was difficult to feel-out which Portland businesses were open and closed Thursday, among rumors of an oncoming snowstorm. The offices of the Portland Business Alliance were ironically closed, while tickets to all three of the Portland Walking Tours’ excursions for the day sold out.

The stereotype of Oregonians not being able to handle even small amounts of snow and ice has become a running-gag nationally, while residents themselves have become increasingly fed up in recent years with the state's snow-induced paralysis during winter storms.

When a state's commerce is shut down during a snowstorm, its total economic losses range from approximately $80 million to $700 million per day, according to a 2014 report released by the American Highway Users Alliance.

"The economic impact of snow-related closure far exceeds the cost of timely snow removal. Although states and localities may be hesitant to expend more significant upfront resources in the short-term, the long-term payoff more than justifies the expense,” the report stated.

Oregon is one of six U.S. states that doesn't use rock salt to de-ice its roads, but some critics say public works crews should salt the roads when snow and ice threaten to disrupt commerce.

Would You Like Salt With That? ODOT Says No.

“We have no intention of using salt in the Portland area,” Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Dave Thompson said.

There are, however, two places in Oregon where road salt is used, because the state chose the locations as “testing areas,” for de-icing roads with salt — those locations are Interstate 5, near the California border, and Route 95, which crosses into Idaho and Nevada. The state adopted salt de-icing on both highways because all three bordering states use rock salt to de-ice their highways.

In the past, drivers from neighboring states who drove into Oregon during the Winter would be immediately aware they had crossed the state line because of the abundance of ice - and the absense of salt - on the road. The state agreed to test the use salt to keep the surfaces of the roads consistent.

"We wanted to have safe road conditions for travelers,” Thompson said.

One of the challenged facing the test sites is tht the safe storage and cleaning of salt comes with significant costs.

The reasons Oregon doesn’t use rock salt for de-icing its roads, Thompson said, specifically include, “the environmental effects of salt, the cost of creating storage sites and equipment wash sites, protecting the area’s highway infrastructure and the promotion of bridges outweigh any potential benefits, given the number of times that we would use salt appropriately.”

On the contrary, some business leaders say the potential environmental impacts pale in comparison to the economic hit that Portland area businesses are forced to take while the city is shut down.

Could Cost State Economy Up to $40 million per day.

Although Oregon wasn't featured in the data released by the American Highway Users Alliance, the state of Kentucky, which has a similar population and nearly-identical gross domestic product as Oregon, was included

Here is a quick comparison of the state's economies. 

Population:

  • Oregon: 3,930,000
  • Kentucky: 4,390,000
     

Per Capita State Revenue: (2014, US Gov. Revenue Statistics)

  • Oregon: $8,801.4
  • Kentucky: $6,811 
     

Personal Per Capita Income: (U.S. Census 2008-2012)

The economy of Kentucky was the most comparable to be included in the data, as the state’s per-capita income of is only approximately $3,000 less than that of Oregon’s. During snow disruptions, the bluegrass state loses approximately $46.5 million per day in direct economic losses, according to the report. If the associated economic losses that are considered "indirect" are included, including the lost income tax revenue from workers who stayed home from their shifts, the figure doubles. 

When a business is forced to temporarily close because of the weather, its hourly employees lose-out on the wages of their scheduled work day. In fact, approximately two-thirds of direct economic losses during a shutdown stem from hourly employees. The loss of income for workers equals a significant loss of income tax revenue — an indirect cost to the economy. 

With slightly more wealthy communities and a smaller population, Oregon's economy could stand to lose even more revenue than Kentucky's.

Thompson, however, said he disagrees with those who claim that not putting salt on the roads is to blame for keeping Portland locked in commercial-gridlock during winter storms.

“How many times has the city shut down? I think I would argue the premise,” Thompson said.

Commerce in the metro area was brought to a standstill several times in recent memory, including 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Thompson, however, said he only considers the large storm in 2008, that shut down Portland for approximately six days, to have been the last time the city was "shut down" by a storm. 

“Nothing would have cleared the roads during the height of that storm. There’s you could go out there in the middle of the blinding 50-mile-per-hour winds and bad road conditions, freezing temperatures,” Thompson said. “There’s nothing you could have used to open the road — nothing. Salt would not have done it.”

Salt melts ice most effectively when temperatures are between 20 and 30 degrees fahrenheit, according to The Oregon Department of Transportation.

“We usually don’t get those temperatures very often in most parts of the state,” Thompson said. “Below 15 degrees, salt and most de-icing chemicals are not effective — so we don’t use any of those when it’s that cold.”

In-lieu of using rock salt, the Oregon Department of Transportation uses a liquid de-icing solution containing magnesium chloride — MgCl₂.

“It’s a metallic salt instead of a rock salt, so it’s not as chemically-hot,” Thompson said, “and that produces better results in most conditions, with fewer environmental infrastructure side effects than rock salt.”

 

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