Oak Park is trying to cut back on an expensive habit: spreading too much salt.

With snowfall rising and salt supplies dwindling, the village is trimming how much salt it sprinkles on Oak Park streets. For the duration of this winter, crews will no longer salt side streets. Crews will salt all intersections and main roads, including border streets and main roads such as Madison Street or Oak Park Avenue. “Secondary” routes like Home, East and Lombard avenues will only be plowed, Public Works Director John Wielebnicki said.

At the start of February, the village has already used over 6,000 tons of salt, more than it used all of last winter. Oak Park has already seen some two dozen “snow events” this winter, with about six weeks left in the season. Roughly 24 snowfalls occurred all of last winter, officials estimate.

Backup salt supplies are currently stalled on a river barge en route to Chicago. The village’s supplier, North American Salt Company, could not be reached for comment.

Under the village’s previous snow plan, crews would spread about 800 pounds of salt per mile on each lane of every street. That practice costs roughly $200,000 each winter season. The new plan aims to cut salt use in half, to 400 pounds and could save upwards of $100,000, officials believe.

The reduction will also limit salt’s damage to the environment, Wielebnicki said. Salt can kill vegetation and damage streets. However, low salt supplies are forcing the change, not costs or manpower, he added.

“This is not a situation we enjoy being in,” he said. “A number of communities are totally out of salt, and we’re fortunate that we saw this coming, and we started cutting back on our reserves. We’re not trying to compromise safety be any means over environmental sustainability; I want to make that real clear.”

Village Manager Tom Barwin said he wants to shift away from the practice of “dumping as much salt as necessary to make these roads wet and bare as quickly as possible.”

Beet juice?

The village plows whenever there is over 2 inches of snowfall, and salts when there is less. The village is working on combining salt with sand or beet juice to limit salt usage but still treat streets effectively. Street sweeping will also help clear smaller snowfalls.

Under the new plan, Oak Park will salt about one third of its roughly 100 miles of roadway, Wielebnicki said.

As of last Friday, Oak Park had about 500 tons of salt in its reserves. The village had about 1,200 tons stockpiled before this winter. The village board approved a purchase of 5,850 tons of salt for $75,000 at a board meeting Monday. The salt was originally purchased by staff last year, but multiple snowfalls occurred late in the year. Oak Park uses about 4,500 tons of salt in the average winter.

Oak Park already purchased $163,000 worth of salt from North American Salt Company in November, for a total of $238,036 in salt so far.

The village is working to purchase 1,000 more tons of salt to help it get through the rest of this winter. Public works will stick to the reduced salting plan, barring any freezing rain, which creates slippery conditions and could force more salting, Wielebnicki said.

Crews usually just plow the alleys. However, they do salt sidewalks near mass transit, along with about 24 intersections with school crossing guards.

Public works handed out free salt last December, due to freezing rain and low salt supplies in commercial stores. Wielebnicki said it was an effort to keep sidewalks safe. He labeled the handout, about 12 tons of salt, as negligible, amounting to less than half a percent of Oak Park’s total winter salt usage.

Barwin said two crashes occurred in Oak Park last Friday when a snowstorm hit. The village will monitor traffic incidents during the test period. Officials urge drivers to lower speeds, increase following distances and anticipate stops.

Wielebnicki said the extra salt could cost over $100,000, depending on prices and the winter’s severity. About $108,000 is left in the 2008 village budget for salt costs, and Village President David Pope said the numbers will likely change to purchase salt when next winter comes around.

“This snow season isn’t at all like last snow season or any snow season we’ve seen in the last couple years,” Pope said.

Beet juice to the rescue!

What’s the best liquid anti-icing agent? Public works says it’s beet juice.

To create the best salt “brine,” trucks spray a liquid along with distributing salt. Beet juice has calcium and other potent melting agents, Public Works Director John Wilebnicki said. However, it is “considerably” more expensive.

Oak Park uses beet juice and salt on parking garages, sidewalks on bridges over the expressway, and Metra station areas. The village has a smaller truck fitted with beet juice tanks to treat its few brick streets. The trucks also have rubber blades to avoid damaging the bricks.

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