A new vision for roadwork

Experts are looking for ways to balance safe winter roads and environmental protection. Photo by Nancie Battaglia
Experts are looking for ways to balance safe winter roads and environmental protection.
Photo by Nancie Battaglia

The dilemma is clear: residents and visitors to the Adirondack Park rely on safe roads in winter, yet de-icing methods have caused a steady increase in sodium and chloride in the Park’s sensitive waterways. But do we really face a choice between pavement safe enough to send school buses over, on one hand, and protecting the environment from a growing threat, on the other?

A series of reports and symposiums by AdkAction, Paul Smith’s College, and the Adirondack Council raises hope that changes in road management and driver attitudes could stem environmental degradation without sacrificing the mobility that our standard of living depends on.

Maybe the biggest hopeful indicator is the roster of people and organizations who have begun working toward solutions. A September symposium at Paul Smith’s brought together environmental scientists, leaders in state and local transportation departments, environmental advocates, and elected officials. The session’s spirit was one of putting heads together to understand a challenge, not one of posturing or casting blame.

There is plenty to be concerned about. Studies by the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s and the Cary Institute in Dutchess County show that chloride from road salt enters shallow groundwater and persists there. From there it feeds steadily into streams and lakes throughout the year, not just during the winter. And as contamination slowly works through the ecosystem the impact of road treatments may be felt years or even decades later. The Cary Institute documented steadily increasing chlorine levels in Dutchess County over eighteen years even though records show highway crews were not applying increasing amounts of salt during that time.

These studies argue for a sense of urgency, even in the Adirondacks where levels are not yet as high as in the mid-Hudson. With contamination slow to be seen, damage to Adirondack lakes and streams may already be worse than we have been able to measure. This also means that any steps to reduce or eliminate salt will take years to have full effect. We must act now.

In fact, the state Department of Transportation has operated pilot programs for two winters in the Adirondacks, testing various measures for reducing salt. It has tried different de-icers, new strategies for deploying crews, and new plow equipment.

In Essex County, the DOT has moved to a blend of salt and magnesium chloride, which is more effective at lower temperatures, reducing the overall need for de-icer. Pretreating roads with brine also appears to improve efficiency, though it relies on good forecasts and timing. Even such measures as slowing the speed of plows to a maximum of twenty-five miles per hour can help. The slower speed reduces the amount of salt that bounces off pavement and ends up on the side of roads, where it can do no good but measurable harm. (So it behooves us to be understanding when finding ourselves behind a plow on our way home.)

Unfortunately, the scientific knowledge about various de-icers is incomplete. We need more information, for instance, on the health and environmental impacts of the chlorine compounds that may be used instead of salt. Magnesium chloride is more efficient and more benign than sodium chloride (the usual road salt), but it is not free of negative impact, and its role in Park ecology needs further study. We are also just beginning to understand what’s going on with salt in groundwater, and we need to know more about the potential impact of salt on human health, especially when found in well water.

We do know enough to take some next steps, building on recent research and the state’s Adirondack pilot programs.

Participants in the September symposium discussed creating a working group of transportation officials, scientists, and advocates to guide the region in setting a course and moving forward. This would be an excellent step.

Such a group could commission further research aimed specifically at Adirondack conditions. It could propose changes to road maintenance, analyze the ramifications, and monitor the results. An example would be the idea of cutting back tree cover in specific areas where roads are prone to icing over. Pavement that is more open to the sun will naturally remain more ice free. Should we do that? A question like this should be looked at not only from the point of view of what’s best for road maintenance, but also how it fits in with constitutional protection of the Forest Preserve and the need to maintain a parklike character in the Adirondack countryside. Rather than fighting over such issues after they are instituted, it would be more constructive to bring the interested parties together to work out solutions in advance.

More and more it looks like there is no single answer to how to balance road safety and environmental protection. Different types of roads should have different standards. Major arteries should be cleared more aggressively than secondary roads. The high speed and heavy traffic of the Adirondack Northway, for instance, require a different approach than village roads in Saranac Lake or Old Forge.

The Adirondack Watershed Institute identified about two hundred lane miles of state roads (out of 2,800 lane miles of state roads within the Park) that were in critical zones near sensitive waterways. Concentrating attention there could bring high-value results for relatively less cost and disruption.

And across the region, drivers need to adjust our expectations. If we don’t demand roads that allow us to motor at top speeds no matter the weather we can manage our roadways in a way that’s safer both for ourselves and for the natural world.

Bringing all the interested parties together for continuing efforts would provide the vision and management to make such a multifaceted approach work.

— Tom Woodman, Publisher

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