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Winter Shatters Expense Records in North, Causes Chaos in South

With winter's end approaching, the 2013-2014 season has caused major disruptions in the southern part of the country, while setting record-breaking expenditures for areas in the Midwest and Northeast.

The long-lasting and relentless winter season has broken seasonal maintenance expenditure records for the Ohio Department of Transportation and has created commuter chaos in Georgia and the Carolinas.

"We have used almost a million tons of salt in the state of Ohio," Ohio Department of Transportation Spokesman Steve Faulkner said. "No one can recall a winter where we used a million tons of salt."

Approximately 630,000 tons of salt are stockpiled each year for an average winter in Ohio, Faulkner said. This year, an additional 510,000 tons were obtained through department contracts.

"This is part of our winter preparedness," he said. "We go above and beyond."

Despite the extra supply, the department, which maintains an annual budget of $2.8 billion, has already spent record-breaking highs in total winter maintenance expenditures including labor, materials and equipment.

"This winter has cost us $100 million," he said. "We believe it will be a record breaker."

The department receives no revenue from the state's general fund, and acts as a self-sustaining entity through the fuel tax.

In late January and mid-February, storms and ice plagued the South, hitting major metropolitan areas from Charlotte, N.C., to Atlanta, Ga.

While many of the Northern states budget for winter expenses, South Carolina's department of transportation does not because expenses vary from year to year, department spokesman Jim Feda said.

"We don't really just budget for winter weather like the Northern states would," Feda said. "It's not a huge amount - it's just part of the ordinary supplies when they budget for salt."

In recent months, South Carolina was impacted by two major events that affected almost the entire state, he said.

Sixty-three percent of the roads in the state are managed by the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

With a total storage capacity of 40,000 tons, salt supplies were nearly depleted after the first major storm in January, according to Feda.

"It all depends, we may go for several years and rarely use our supply," he said. "This has been one of the harder winters."

In January, 16,000 tons of salt, 132,000 gallons of liquid calcium chloride and 847,000 gallons of brine were used to clear the roadways. Two weeks later, in February, 17,000 tons of salt, 73,600 gallons of calcium chloride and 1.4 million gallons of brine were used.

"They had pretty much exhausted the (salt) supply after the first one and didn't have a chance to restock two weeks later," Feda said, referring to crews across the state.

Through the department's mobilization efforts, they succeeded in resupplying their crews in time for the second event.

In Georgia, thousands of vehicles were strewn across Atlanta highways and stuck in gridlock during the Jan. 28, 2014, winter storm, keeping motorists stranded overnight. In response, Gov. Nathan Deal declared a State of Emergency before the second storm, AAA's Automotive Services, Automotive Group Spokeswoman Joanna Newton said.

"We've been hit by three waves, but our call volume actually dropped," she said, explaining that during the storm people are more likely to stay off the roadways, but in the days following the storm, the call volume spikes.

"The second wave was the worst," Newton said. "We saw an average of a 30 percent increase over a normal day."

As people return to their daily routines and begin traveling following a storm, more problems arise, she said. During the declared state of emergency, AAA's Atlanta offices were closed following protocol.

"Our goal is to keep our roadways safe," Newton said.

While automotive services employees are not first responders, they perform many duties with law enforcement, fire and emergency service personnel in maintaining safe roadways by mobilizing for first responders before they engage in public assists.

"Everyone has to bear the weight," Newton said, adding that during the January storm, buses full of service personnel were assigned to clear the roadways.

The process is conducted through rotation calls where various automotive service companies work alongside each other.

"I would say it was a wake-up call for motorists in Atlanta," she said. "They're not equipped to handle it down here, and all of a sudden, you had all that traffic moving at the same time; it was just chaos."

Newton said this year has left motorists and state officials with a new mindset in dealing with traffic and severe weather events because it was something people had never seen before.

"There is no way to manage it," Newton said.

AccuWeather Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said the amount of ice that heavily disrupted travel in Atlanta and caused problems in the Carolinas was relatively minimal, but had a major effect in metropolitan areas due to a number of factors.

"It was just enough ice for roadways to become slick and hazardous and it was coming on the heels of a fairly cold period of weather," he said, adding the ground was cooler and allowed the surface to freeze more quickly.

Kottlowski said it was bad timing because it happened during major rush hour traffic and state and local officials could not act fast enough.

"There's no way for any highway department in the South to prepare for these types of events," he said.