State spices up road arsenal

January 10, 2018 GMT

The brutal ice storm that ravaged parts of Lane County in December 2016 has prompted the Oregon Department of Transportation to add road salt to its highway-clearing arsenal in the county.

But it will take the perfect winter storm, the kind that brings heavy freezing rain or packed snow, before state road crews sprinkle salt on the stretch of Interstate 5 in the county, ODOT transportation maintenance manager Kevin Finch said Tuesday in announcing the new strategy.

Statewide, and in Lane County, public agencies typically have avoided using salt to combat snow or ice for a variety of reasons. However, road salt is commonly used in many other parts of the country as a tool during the winter.

“Salt is a last resort for us,” Finch said. “It will only be used when we need to use it.”

The same cold weather system that crippled the Eugene area a little more than a year ago left Portland a wintry mess as well. Unable to find traction on urban highways covered in snow and ice, many motorists around the Rose City abandoned their cars and trucks.


Portland “was just immobilized for a while,” said Joe Lamont, an ODOT transportation maintenance coordinator.

The same was true for much of Eugene, especially at higher elevations, where steep roads were covered in sheets of ice up to an inch or more thick. Salt might have helped break up the ice, officials said.

Partly in response, the state has now expanded a road-salt pilot project that it started in 2012. The agency has approved road salt use along all of I-5 in Oregon. Depending on the weather, Finch said road crews might salt the interstate along its 40 miles in Lane County, as well as its interchanges with Randy Papé Beltline and Interstate 105.

Road salt is a rock salt, about the size of salt found in a grinder for flavoring food. Salt melts ice and snow.

Salt works the best when temperatures are between 20 and 32 degrees, according to ODOT. Should a nasty winter storm descend on the area, the agency plans to use 100 to 300 pounds of salt per mile of highway lane, and only use it on snow less than 2 inches deep.

Lane County and city of Eugene road crews don’t use road salt, county and city officials said.

Instead, crews use sand or other gritty compounds, and a chemical de-icer that is applied to steep hills, sharp corners and other danger spots.

“We are interested in ODOT’s experience here in the southern Willamette Valley” with salt, City of Eugene spokesman Brian Richardson said Tuesday, “but we don’t have any immediate plans to use salt on Eugene roads.”

The state has 25,000 pounds of road salt ready for use in the county; it is stored at the agency’s maintenance yard in Glenwood. The salt costs $188 per 2,500 pounds, Finch said. The entire supply cost the state $1,880.


Road salting is common in other parts of the country, but cost and environmental concerns have kept it from being a part of Oregon winters. Officials worry that salty runoff from roadways can pollute roadsides and waterways, for example.

State road crews had not used salt in Oregon for at least 50 years, said ODOT spokeswoman Angela Beers Seydel, until 2012 when the agency started pilot road salt projects.

“We are going to use it if it’s appropriate and use it judiciously,” she said.

Before adding road salt as a third possible treatment for icy highways, ODOT had two options in Lane County — magnesium chloride, a liquid de-icer that has a salt component, and crushed rock.

Finely crushed road rock or gravel costs about $15 per 2,000 pounds, Finch said, but the material had added cleanup costs.

The grit accumulates along shoulders and in roadside ditches. Deicer and road salt dissolve, but crushed rocks stays put, and crews must return to sweep it up.

Lane County and the city of Eugene both use deicer to combat ice and snow. Last winter ODOT used it more than sand to improve highway conditions in Lane County, Lamont said. In all, the agency sprayed 56,000 gallons of de-icer in the county during December 2016. The state has three trucks capable of being equipped as de-icer rigs in Lane County.

The de-icer liquid leaves long damp-looking parallel lines along the length of the sections of roads where it is sprayed.

The same big dump trucks that push snowplows and spread sand will also be capable of distributing road salt, Finch said, although the trucks can only unload one material at a time. ODOT has four of the large trucks in the county.

But the road salting will likely start with a smaller dump truck, affixed with a new $3,000 salt spreader. Lamont said the machine’s hopper holds a ton and a half of salt.

He said he would have liked to have had road salt as an option during the memorable ice storm of late 2016.

“We would have had wet roads rather than frozen roads,” Lamont said.

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