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Boston faces lower maintenance costs this winter

The setting sun highlights the road salt kicked up into the air by cars in Kenmore Square. However, the city of Boston’s winter maintenance cost has gone down this year. PHOTO BY MICHELLE JAY/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The setting sun highlights the road salt kicked up into the air by cars in Kenmore Square. However, the city of Boston’s winter maintenance cost has gone down this year. PHOTO BY MICHELLE JAY/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

As the City of Boston enters what is typically considered one of the coldest months of the year, city officials prepare to combat the chilly period with road maintenance and snow removal.

In order to fight the dangerous conditions brought on by snow and ice, the city is forced to spend millions of dollars annually on winter maintenance and clean up.

Emilee Ellison, spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, said this season has thus far been significantly less difficult to respond to, economically, than the winter of 2011-12.

“Last winter, Public Works spent $5.54 million on snow removal activities,” she said. “This year, we have spent $2.2 million.” The Public Works Department, tasked with ensuring the safety and cleanliness of the city’s roadways, streets and bridges, takes the lead on winter clean up.

Elmo Baldassari, deputy commissioner of Boston Public Works, spoke in a video from the City of Boston’s website about the snow maintenance process.

“The truck operators come in at 3:30 a.m.,” he said in the video released in November. “They get their truck assignment and route assignment and head out into the street. We can have anywhere from 40 to 45 trucks throughout the city during the day. If we need to, we call in 80 to 100 trucks overnight to help with the morning commute.”

Baldassari said the maintenance levels vary depending on the shifting weather conditions.

“We pre-treat as much as we can to keep the roadways open and safe,” he said. “But in some storms we just have to stop salting because the snow could be coming down two-to-three inches an hour.”

Each storm determines the number of truckers that are required, Baldassari said.

“The duration of the storm and the number of people affected determines how many pieces of equipment we have out on the road,” he said.

The number of overtime workers is a large factor in the winter maintenance task.  The City of Boston declared its first snow emergency in late December, requiring Boston Police, Fire and Emergency Medical Services to call in extra staffing, according to a press release from Menino’s office.

This winter has been reported as “mild,” according to the National Weather Service, which, for some, begs the question of the impact of climate change.

Pamela Templer, a professor of biology at Boston University, said the unstable winter conditions is damaging to multiple ecosystems across the U.S.

“What we are finding is that, in winters with smaller snowpack, the snow accumulates later, which exposes the soil to below freezing air temperatures early in winter,” she said. “This leads to colder soil, which can damage the roots of trees and decrease the population of insects living in the soil.”

Templer said this problem is not likely to go away on its own and is likely to negatively affect winter industries.

“Scientists and the public need to work together to understand how winter climate is changing and to figure out ways to help those industries adapt so that they don’t go out of business,” she said.

Sean Terry, 26, a housing advocate for the New England Center for Homeless veterans, said he sees a noticeable climate shift each winter.

“There’s a lot less snow than I remember,” he said. “It was like 60 degrees last week — in January — clearly there is something wrong. We should pay attention to what scientists are saying and not think that it isn’t an issue just because there are days where it is still really cold.”

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