The winter’s frigid temperatures and numerous snowstorms have left the South Fork’s roads cratered and crumbling, and municipal budgets withering, and the worst of the damage could be yet to come.
Seemingly weekly heavy snows and near-record low temperatures have had town and village road crews scrambling almost constantly to keep the build-up of snow and ice on pavement in check. As the plows are put away—at least for now—the chore of repairing roads left pockmarked by potholes and disintegrated pavement begins.
And by the time winter makes its final exit, highway budgets across the region are expected to be tapped out or, worse, overdrawn.
“My budget is shot for overtime, snow removal and sand,” said East Hampton Village Superintendent of Public Works Scott Fithian. “We’re in the red now.”
The village’s highway crews have already racked up nearly twice as many overtime hours as anticipated by officials when drawing up its budget last summer, spending $36,000—or twice what was budgeted for such overtime. Also, the village has already blown its entire $40,000 budget for contractors, spending $40,300 to date and with bills still pending from the storm on February 15—and, of course, with the potential for additional storms to come.
Mr. Fithian said the heavy toll will mean that money will have to be pulled from other parts of the village budget to make up for those costs. “Rob Peter to pay Paul,” he lamented.
The story is the same for highway departments across much of the South Fork. Budgets have been drained by overtime salaries paid to plow drivers roaming the streets in the middle of the night, the restocking of salt and sand, the hiring of independent contractors who lend a hand by plowing side streets and parking lots, and repairing equipment left threadbare by hard-wearing tasks.
East Hampton Town has run up some $50,000 in overtime bills thus far, more than $22,000 more than budgeted for by officials, according to Highway Superintendent Steve Lynch. The town has also spent more than $95,000 on hiring outside contractors to assist with snow removal, including the plowing of the state highway between Pantigo Road and Montauk Point—some $25,000 more than anticipated in the town’s 2014 budget.
Mr. Lynch noted that his highway department has an approximately $2 million reserve surplus to help cover unanticipated costs, as well as nearly $150,000 in federal aid from winter storm Nemo, the blizzard that struck one year ago this month.
Westhampton Beach Village Clerk Elizabeth Lindtvit said this week that her village had already exceeded its $15,000 budget for overtime payroll to cover snow removal. In January alone, the village paid employees approximately $20,600 for such work, just $3,000 shy of what it doled out in overtime during January, February and March combined last year.
Mr. Lynch said the one place where East Hampton Town has been able to dodge some costs this winter has been in its repair garage, thanks to replacement of several key vehicles in recent years. Other departments have not been so lucky. In Southampton Town, equipment breakages have been a bear for the highway department staff to keep up with, according to Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor. In Southampton Village, the central garage has already exceeded its budget for the year on repairs to the town’s plow trucks.
“At our worst we had 18 vehicles down,” Mr. Gregor said. “The equipment is hurting. We were up to about $30,000 for shop repair bills in January, all for parts. With the ice it’s a lot of broken axles and bad transmissions.”
The town, which does not delineate a separate snow and ice removal budget for the winter, has mostly stayed within its budget spending forecasts, Mr. Gregor said, despite the mounting repair bills.
The towns’ highway superintendents took advantage of last week’s warmer weather to get out and put temporary patches on roadways, filling potholes with “cold patch,” a stop-gap measure that will protect tires and tie-rods from the battering of road craters for only a month or two until more permanent asphalt patches can be laid in.
“The reason this winter has been much harder on roads than normal isn’t just the snow, it’s a lot of freeze-and-thaw cycles,” Mr. Lynch said. “Next month, when it really thaws out, that’s when there will be nothing left of the state roads.”
As much as highway crews are eagerly looking forward to the last snowfall being behind them, the road ahead is just as daunting. Once the tide of snow and ice chores recedes, a new tsunami will rise up on the horizon. Along with the cold-patched potholes from winter that need re-filling, the thawing ground will soon cause roadways to heave, buckle and crumble, according to those charged with maintaining them. Helped along by spring rains that seep into cracks and erode base layers, the worst of the pavement destruction from winter still lies ahead.
Mr. Gregor asks that residents of his town call or email his office to report problematic potholes, and to make sure that they can offer specific locations. He said usually crews are able to come and patch potholes within 24 hours. The towns, however, care for only their own roads, Mr. Lynch noted, and cannot make repairs to Route 27, even where it passes through their jurisdiction, because state highway standards for roadway patches are much higher than those of local roads that can be done by town crews.
“This is really just the beginning,” Mr. Gregor said. “The worst month is April. You get a lot of rain and then the frost gets out and the road starts to heave. We’re noticing things are bit worse than normal so far, but we’ll really know what the costs are when we see what March and April brings.”