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Not your average winter, but spending is up in the North Country

Union Leader Correspondent

February 05. 2014 9:22PM

LANCASTER - Winter is always slightly different 'north of the notches,' but as the current season unfolds, state Department of Transportation officials in the North Country say they, too, face the prospect of going over-budget, just like their downstate peers.
Based in this community on the Connecticut River, the NHDOT’s District 1 Office is responsible for maintaining a huge swath of territory, including all or some of 55 communities north of the Kancamagus Highway, and 850 miles of roads.

On Wednesday morning, as a snowstorm bore down on the southern and central portions of the Granite State — each of which faced the prospect of receiving up to a foot or more of the white stuff — Brian Schutt, the District 1 engineer, said things were relatively quieter but added that maintenance crews were out nonetheless.

“The roads in the northern part of the state are in decent condition but we’ve put bans on some roads,” he said, adding that, for this winter in general, “We’re doing OK on the numbered routes, but the unnumbered, secondary routes are in really tough shape.”

District 1 has 17 patrol sheds and a staff of 135 employees and for the winter of 2013-2014, it has a highway maintenance budget of just under $4 million, the majority of which, said Schutt, pays for overtime, salt/sand, and rented equipment but does not cover regular salaries and benefits.

“To date, we have spent about $3 million of that budget,” said Schutt, $2 million of which paid for salt that was already used — some 22,000 tons worth — as well as the 15,000 tons remaining in the District 1 inventory.

Overall, by Schutt’ estimate, “we are about 10-15 percent ahead of a normal year’s spending to this point.”

He later cautioned that “normal” is an increasingly inefficient adjective for the types of winters the North Country has experienced and to which the state DOT responds.

“I wouldn’t say ’normal,’” to describe this winter, Schutt said, “because the last few years the winters have varied so much. We budget on an average which is a three-year average and the storms every winter have been different. It’s not been a normal winter by any stretch with the rain and freezing rain we got.”

Whereas the lower two-thirds of the state has been buffeted by several powerful, snow-laden storms, the North Country has “had a lot of rain this winter,” said Schutt, which was followed by a warm spell and freezing rain.

“For the state as a whole, it’s been a rough winter but not so much for us,” he said, although there are exceptions.

“What’s strange about the North Country is you don’t have to go very far for the weather to be a whole lot different,” said Schutt. “You have the notches (through the White Mountains), which have a mirco-climate of their own. In the Lancaster area, we really haven’t had that severe a winter here but we’ve had to do a lot of treatment based on the kind of weather” in Lancaster and throughout District 1.

As to Wednesday’s snowstorm, “We’re treating the roads and keeping up with it. We’ve had some equipment breakdowns and we’re trying to scramble to cover them but this is typical of most storms.”

Looking forward to the end of the winter-maintenance-season, Schutt thinks District 1 may overspend its budget.

“It’s going to be close getting through the winter if things continue to be the way they are. We may need some additional funding, but nobody knows. Nobody has a crystal ball.”

There is, however, one certainty every winter, said Schutt.

“This time of year, this is what they pay us to do. We’re ready to plow snow 24/7.”

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