It's not often a state agency says it should be paying more for a service. But when it comes to fighting snow and ice, PennDot this year gave handsome raises to 94 municipalities in the region.
The timing, as it turns out, has been fortunate. For at least the sixth time this winter, towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were sending out the salt trucks Tuesday for yet another snow-and-ice event in a season in which the region's snowfall — better than a foot — has been about double what's normal.
This time it was for a nuisance one to two inches of snow expected Tuesday night into Wednesday.
In the case of 93 townships, boroughs, and cities in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, and the City of Philadelphia, PennDot is providing what amounts to a modest local tax break by increasing subsidies by as much as 34 percent for agreeing to plow snow from state roads in their boundaries.
"I will say that in previous years, we were a little low," said John Krafczyk, assistant district executive for maintenance at PennDot. "We upped our rates to make [participation] attractive to them."
Unlike the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which maintains all state roads, PennDot relies on municipalities to clear some of its roadways, especially in the populous five-county region. The towns handle about 30 percent of the miles the state would have to treat.
The agency doesn't have enough trucks, so it rents them at an average price of $250 to $300 per hour, Krafczyk said.
But the more towns that participate in the Municipal Snow Removal Agreement Program, the fewer trucks PennDot has to rent. Another benefit, state and municipal officials in the program agree, is faster service.
"I think the municipalities do a better job than some of our rentals do, because they're right there," Krafczyk said. "It could take us one and a half, two hours to get there. The municipality is there and probably can respond quicker."
State officials know the program isn't for everyone. Some municipalities that have no public works departments and few snow-removal trucks struggle to maintain their own roads and don't participate in the program. Some towns consistently have spent more money on the cleanup than they received from PennDot and have dropped out. Others think PennDot should clear its own roads.
The state pays a lump sum to municipalities every October for winter maintenance. The amount is based on how heavily traveled the state roads are and the number of lane miles that need clearing. In uneventful winters, municipalities might profit. In friskier winters, they may take a hit, and during particularly harsh winters, PennDot can decide to pay more per mile.
Over the last decade, PennDot has paid municipalities in the five-county region $45.5 million. The agency used to pay $883 per lane mile across the board. This year, municipalities get between $1,023 and $1,183 per lane mile depending on the types of highway they contain.
For example, Doylestown Borough received more than $8,100 this year to plow state roads, which should be enough to cover costs, said Phil Ehlinger, director of public works and planning. The state classifies its roads in the Bucks County borough — pieces of Routes 611 (Main Street) and 202 (State Street) — as "limited access and major arterial highways," the type for which it pays the most.
"The really important [roads] are PennDot roads, the ones that run through the center of town," said Ehlinger, who is also deputy borough manager in the 2½-square-mile community of 8,300 people. "We're able to remove snow from those streets more efficiently…. It's a little trickier doing snow fighting in a compact town like ours than perhaps a more urban or suburban setting."
If PennDot's trucks plowed those state roads, borough trucks would probably have to go back in to clear parking lanes in front of businesses downtown, Ehlinger said.
Oxford Borough, in Chester County, has been plowing its 17 lane miles of state roads for more than 20 years. Because it is an urban community in a rural region, "it just made sense" for the borough to handle those roads, said Brian Hoover, borough manager.
"If we didn't do it, we'd have to bypass everything and rely on the state to keep the town open, and it would be a lot more difficult," Hoover said.
The Philadelphia Streets Department salts and plows all but six state roads: Schuylkill Expressway, I-95, I-676, Woodhaven Road, Roosevelt Expressway, and the Platt Bridge.
But participating in the program was impractical for Aldan Borough, a 0.6-square-mile community in Delaware County, so it left.
"It's nice to know the state is maintaining four major roads in town," said John White, borough manager. "They do such a better job."
Aldan does not have to maintain equipment or house a mountain of salt. The plowers it contracts with can focus on back roads. Larger neighbors ensure PennDot is never too far away, White said.
The state offered more money to keep Aldan in the program, he said, but he declined. The increases haven't been attractive enough to bring back several municipalities that have left in the last few years.
Perkiomen Avenue in Schwenksville Borough is so steep that the store at its bottom put up metal poles to slow runaway vehicles. Add some freezing precipitation and the only state road in the borough becomes a Slip 'N Slide.
The Montgomery County community of 1,385 people had its municipal authority plow the road for the state for years. But a couple of years ago, borough officials decided they'd had enough.
"What we get paid from PennDot, it just wasn't worth it for [the borough] to do it," said Anne Klepfer, borough manager. "It's a very, very steep hill and it's PennDot's road. And for us it was kind of a no-brainer to say, 'No, PennDot needs to do this.' "
But communities continue to see the benefit. Yardley Borough in Bucks County entered PennDot's program three years ago, and borough manager John Boyle called the program the most efficient way to clear snow.
"If you personally can call up somebody who works for you to get something done rather than calling another organization, it's definitely more efficient," he said.