- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

Road crews have cut back on such chores as mowing grass and picking up roadside trash because the mild winter has squeezed their budgets.

A mild winter usually means crews spend less money, but some are over budget and face cutbacks because of unexpected costs and having to perform duties usually done in the warmer months.

Virginia’s Department of Transportation has already spent $670 million of the $1.1 billion earmarked for maintenance in its fiscal 2006 budget, said agency spokeswoman Tamara Neale.

By the end of January, the agency had spent about $40 million more than anticipated, mostly because of higher gas prices and crews trimmed trees and did work typically reserved for spring, she said.

As a result, the agency will delay buying new equipment and curtail such work as clipping bushes, clearing ditches and picking up trash along highways.

“Our contracts are written in such a way that we scale back if we need to,” Miss Neale said. “At the end of the day, we have to live within our means.”

The cutbacks are aesthetics-related, will last only until the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30, and will not put motorists at risk, she said.

“If there’s a piece of property we own that’s away from the highway, we may mow the grass there three more times instead of four,” Miss Neale said. “There will be absolutely nothing done or changed that will jeopardize traffic safety.”

Maryland’s State Highway Administration has already spent $9 million more than the $21 million budgeted for winter operations in fiscal 2006, said agency spokesman David Buck. However, officials say the lack of winter storms in most of the state has kept the budget reasonably under control.

“In the last eight or nine years, [the agency] usually spent about $20 million to $25 million, except for a few years when heavy snow and blizzards drove costs to more than $60 million,” Mr. Buck said. “So we’re right around where we usually are.”

Most of the winter-operations budget — which pays for snow-removal materials and snow-related overtime for employees — was spent in the western part of the state.

“About 125 inches of snow from 25 measurable storms fell in western Maryland” in fiscal 2006, Mr. Buck said. “Though these areas are out of sight, out of mind for the [metropolitan] region, when Allegany and Washington counties get hit with these storms, we have to act.”

He said preparing for a storm, even those that fizzle, is also expensive.

The warm weather has helped the D.C. Department of Transportation, which officials say has stayed within its $7 million street-and-bridge maintenance budget for fiscal 2006 while keeping city roads in good shape.

“Potholes are down, not just in [number] but also the severity of them,” said agency spokesman Bill Rice, “and we’ve been able to continue tree planting through the winter, which is unusual because the ground is usually frozen this time of year.”

The District has received about 1,100 reports of potholes this fiscal year, compared with 5,000 in fiscal 2005; 5,400 in fiscal 2004; and 9,000 in fiscal 2003, Mr. Rice said.

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