'One for the record books': Mild winter eases strain on local municipalities' roads, budgets

Feb. 26—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — The 2022-23 winter season hasn't just been light on snow. It's been light on local municipalities' budgets, too.

This season's lack of winter storms — so far — has allowed cities, boroughs and townships to save money on road salt, fuel, and in some cases overtime pay, officials said.

Given today's higher costs for road materials and fuel, that's a welcome development, said Steve Buncich, a supervisor in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

"I keep a log of the number of days we go out (to plow), and I've seen plenty of up and down years, but this could be one for the record books," said Buncich, who is also the township's roadmaster.

While a few more blasts of winter weather likely await before spring, most communities across the region have seen less than 20 inches of snow so far, including a late fall storm in October.

After seeing an overall string of milder winters in the past decade, Johnstown city officials cut back a bit last year on their purchase of road salt for the 2022-23 winter season, Public Works Director Jared Campagna said. With March — and spring — approaching, it appears the city could have plenty of winter road material stockpiled for next year, regardless.

"We've used less than 800 tons this winter," Campagna said. "Usually, we've used 1,200 to 1,300 by now."

Extended impact

Campagna said the city is likely saving money on overtime costs, too, because drivers treated Johnstown's roads far less often than normal this season.

Buncich said the the mild winter has helped both on and off roads in Conemaugh Township. It has saved the township's aging vehicle fleet from inevitable wear and tear caused by continued plowing. And it has allowed road crew workers to get ahead on township maintenance projects and other work that usually doesn't start until spring.

"Everyone's still working 40 hours a week," Buncich said. "They are just able to focus on other things."

Cambria Township Supervisor Chairman Tim Bracken said his crews are already starting to remove roadside snow barriers to allow area farmers to start preparing for spring.

It's likely that there will be a few more snowstorms before spring is in full bloom. But with the sun already at a higher angle in the sky, the snow is "going to be here today, gone tomorrow," Bracken said.

Still, even though Cambria Township road crews haven't spent as much time plowing this year, the township has incurred other costs.

Because the roads haven't frozen over — and have often been bare — there's been a need to continue patching roads and spreading shale on dirt roads. That's far from typical during the winter months — and that costs money, too, Bracken said.

"That's how it ends up working," he said. "You save in one area and pay in another."

AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Tim Kines said that January and February's mild conditions have likely meant a significant savings for local residents, too — perhaps up to 25% on their heating costs this season.

Given the higher costs of natural gas, oil and other heating fuels, "that's big," he said.

But Kines cautioned the region's residents not to get too comfortable yet. AccuWeather's March and April outlook doesn't call for an early spring, he said.

The overall weather pattern will change in March, bringing more frequent bursts of chilly conditions — perhaps lasting up to a week at a time, Kines said. That doesn't mean temperatures will be plummeting to zero — but days with high temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit are likely at times, he said.

Next week's forecast will offer a pretty good preview, he said, with some days' temperatures reaching the 50s and storms likely that could deliver freezing rain or even snow.

"I know some people are probably getting the urge to go outside and start planting — but based on what we're expecting, that's not a good idea," Kines said. "Spring isn't here yet."