updated 12/2/2008 12:39:35 PM ET 2008-12-02T17:39:35

Dave Barber did the math. Now Peoria's public works director is crossing his fingers and hoping his city has enough road salt to ride out the winter.

The central Illinois city recently paid almost $48 a ton to replenish its salt supply, an increase of 30 percent — or $500,000 — over last year. Even so, Barber feels fortunate.

Some towns are paying as much as $170 a ton as salt prices nationwide soar because of shipping problems and surging demand. Hoping for the best — but preparing for the worst — communities are making plans to stretch supplies by mixing salt with sand, brine or even beet juice.

"It's a balancing act between money and quantity," said Barber, who expects to mix the city's salt supply with two parts of sand, effectively cutting the per-ton cost to about $23. "This year, the dollars are going to govern for us, and we're going to try to live within the budget."

The Illinois Department of Transportation contracted to buy 687,730 tons of salt at prices ranging from $55 to $140 a ton. Combined with the 172,000 tons left over from last winter, the department has slightly more than what it used last winter, Secretary Milton Sees said.

In New Hampshire, the state expects to pay $2 million to $3 million more than the $8 million it typically spends on salt. In North Dakota, the state transportation department, which paid about $1.6 million for 29,000 tons of road salt last year, said the price jumped from about $40 a ton in 2004 to about $67 a ton this winter.

Possible collusion?
The wildly disparate costs have raised eyebrows.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is investigating possible collusion among suppliers, but so far has found nothing illegal, spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said.

Dick Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute — a trade group representing U.S. and Canadian salt manufacturers — said the price increase was caused by a "perfect storm" of factors.

Record snow in parts of the U.S. last winter depleted road salt supplies, even though suppliers shipped a near-record 20.3 million tons, up from the average 16 million tons a year through the previous decade, he said.

Then, fearing a repeat of the problem, many states increased their salt orders this year, Hanneman said. Illinois, for example, asked for 34 percent more and Iowa's request spiked by 52 percent.

Hanneman said the handful of salt suppliers in North America have been running full throttle to try to meet demand.

There are three mines each in Louisiana and Kansas, two apiece in Texas, Ohio and Ontario, Canada, and one in New York, all serving states in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River regions, he said. Most of the salt for the East Coast comes from overseas.

Weather hasn't always cooperated, either.

Summer flooding closed locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River for weeks, disrupting barge shipments of road salt. Soaring U.S. gasoline prices over the summer added to the cost of transporting the salt.

Little choice
And in September, Hurricane Ike lashed the Bahamas, idling a Morton Salt site for a week. The storm also shut down production for days at the Louisiana mines.

Now, states have little choice but to pay higher prices and to try to stretch supplies.

Indiana state highway crews will use a new software program to calculate how much road salt is needed on a particular stretch of road.

In Peoria, Barber is hoping his planning pays off.

"It's not like we're the only ones in the boat doing this," he said.

More on highway safety

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