Less snow, more time for pothole patching

MnDOT, WisDOT benefit from lack of snow

With less snowplowing to do, both MnDOT and WisDOT have been able to dedicate time to other projects, such as working on patching potholes.

The historic snowfall of 2022-2023 had an impact throughout the Northland, including the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation (MnDOT and WisDOT).

“It started out in November, December, pretty expensive. Then we had sort of a mild stretch in January and February, then spring got us hard and everything,” said WisDOT Maintainance Supervisor Mike Ostrenga “I want to say in the region up here probably cost me about 50% more, 40, 45% more than what it normally does.”

For Ostrenga’s area in northern Wisconsin, snowplow drivers had a busy week this October. 

“We had to maybe a week’s worth of winter in October, and that sort of caught us a little bit by surprise,” said Ostrenga. “That cost us a little bit of money resource-wise. It cost us a little bit more than what we normally budget for.”

Since then, it has been an abnormally dry snow season, but plows are still occasionally needed.

“This year has been a little bit quieter on the snow front, but we still do have plows out working in the mornings. It’s frosty out, so there are slippery roads,” said MnDOT Public Affairs Coordinator Margie Nelson. “So we’re still out there working and we’re able to redirect our work into other areas, too.” 

Less plowing means not only better hours for snowplow drivers but also more time for other projects. MnDOT has been spending more time tree clearing and similar work that is not normally able to get done as much this time of year. Both MnDOT and WisDOT have been able to dedicate more time to an important community need: filling potholes. 

“We’re out and filling those holes,” said Nelson. “And with that less plow blades on the roads, roads are going to hold up better, too. So less impact on them so they’re able to get ahead on the potholes.”

Although there are benefits for transportation departments, there is one downside to having a mild winter: mixed precipitation. 

“On the maintenance standpoint, it’d be nice just to, you know, get enough white stuff for Christmas and give us a white Christmas and then be relatively mild and everything with no rain,” said Ostrenga. “We don’t want the rain because the freezing rain can be even more expensive than the snow.”

WDIO reached out to the City of Duluth and received the following statement:

“The City of Duluth sees both benefits and negative impacts from low-snowfall winter seasons. In regards to street maintenance operations, our department sees financial savings in terms of fuel, equipment maintenance costs, salt costs, and overtime due to a lower volume of snow removal operations. Additionally, we may experience a lighter pothole-patching season in spring due to the lower volumes of snowmelt. The potential is there, too, for fewer potholes needing early addressing with cold mix asphalt, which is a more costly and less reliable material for patching. Our fleet will have more time off the roads and in the shops getting the regular maintenance and repairs that are needed, so we may see an opportunity to catch up on repairs to our existing equipment. The trade-off, though, is that less snow insulating the ground could leave the water infrastructure that runs beneath it potentially susceptible to issues. It is also important to note that while we cannot predict the weather and the potential impacts it may have, we are prepared to address issues as they arise and always appreciate the public’s patience through our winter season.”

Public Works and Utilities Director Jim Benning