Anyone who drives in the Adirondacks in winter understands the need to reduce ice on the roadways. We have to keep our roads open and safe both for the sake of our drivers and an economy that depends on transportation.
At the same time, anyone who considers the environmental and financial cost of strewing road salt as profligately as we do in the Park can see that there are better ways to keep our roads passable.
Study after study has traced environmental damage to the sodium chloride spread on state and local roads. Similarly they have documented the financial toll that the corrosive material takes on vehicles and transportation infrastructure.
On the environmental side, road salt seriously degrades water quality. A study released this year by the Adirondack Watershed Institute found a direct connection between greatly elevated levels of sodium and chloride in lakes and their proximity to state roads. (It didn’t study local roads.)
And it doesn’t take trained eyes or specialized instruments to see the harm salt does to vegetation. The devastated birch stands along Route 73 past the Cascade Lakes and the browned conifers lining many North Country roadways attest to the ravages of the substance.
Wildlife also fall victim to salt contamination. Aquatic creatures are endangered by changing water chemistry; animals attracted to roads by the chance to lick salt are killed by vehicles; birds that swallow salt crystals sometimes die.
The pain that road salt inflicts on our collective wallets is equally harsh. Highway vehicles that maintain the roads suffer corrosion. So do family cars that drive over the salt. Bridge decks corrode, concrete cracks, and reinforcing steel rusts. A Wisconsin study placed the national cost of salt damage to vehicles and infrastructure at $16 billion to $19 billion a year.
We don’t have to accept this environmental and financial damage as the cost of living in a wintry region. Alternatives exist. Some require upfront investment in equipment or more costly de-icing materials. Others depend on using information about weather and road conditions to allow road crews to operate more efficiently and drivers to behave more sensibly.
Many states as well as Canada have significantly reduced their use of road salt. Colorado, no stranger to winter conditions, has almost totally eliminated its use.
Alternatives to sodium chloride are available to melt ice from road surfaces, or even better to prevent it from forming in the first place. Among the most promising are materials that use sugars and starches like beet juice and corn syrup. These are more environmentally benign than salt, are more effective at lower temperatures, last longer on road surfaces, and have fewer effects on water ecology than other salt alternatives.
Innovators have developed road surfaces that reduce the amount of de-icers that are necessary and contain the chemicals to prevent migration into waterways. Advanced management using sensors and timely weather reporting can allow highway officials to target the most-effective methods for specific locations and conditions.
Good stewardship of the Adirondack Park’s environment requires us to roll back the increasing contamination from road salt. And enlightened financial self-interest dictates that officials do whatever they can to prevent the damage to the pristine waters and scenic foliage that draw the visitors our tourist economy depends on.
There’s no question that replacing road salting with more effective and environmentally benign methods requires an investment. And even though we are likely to recoup that investment through long-term savings, the budget crunches facing state and local governments are a real obstacle.
Bringing an immediate end to salting all Park roads may be financially out of reach, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a meaningful start. For the near term we can concentrate on environmentally critical areas first. This would provide great benefits while avoiding the budgetary and political obstacles to sweeping, all-at-once change.
One of the encouraging implications of the Watershed Institute’s findings is that highway departments don’t have to choose the most aggressive and expensive alternatives for the entire length of their road systems. The institute found that the critical road areas in terms of water quality are located within 264 feet of water bodies. And only two hundred lane-miles of state roads out of more than 2,600 miles in the Park fall within this critical zone. These sections are segmented over the highway system, but officials trying to balance budgets should still be able to concentrate their efforts in these key areas and adopt less-aggressive strategies for the rest of the system.
State and local governments have the means to roll back salt use without compromising safety or demolishing their budgets. It’s time for them to move past isolated experiments and to commit to a coordinated Park-wide plan for reducing salt use, focusing the most-aggressive efforts on the critical zones near waterways.
And part of any highway strategy should be the simplest idea of all: drivers should not expect winter roads to be so bare that they can drive sixty miles an hour in the dead of winter. Lower seasonal speed limits and sensible driver expectations will allow highway crews to let up on the continual spread of this contaminant.
Tom Woodman, Publisher