JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Much of Missouri saw snowfall Thursday night into Friday. As the state’s Department of Transportation is out clearing and salting the roads, cleanup is costing more than the last storm.
Sticker shock is real when it comes to the current price of gas. A Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) snowplow gets less than 8 miles per gallon and uses diesel fuel. According to AAA, the average cost of diesel in Missouri is $4.73 — which means it costs a pretty penny to fill up the tank.
“They are designed for power, not for fuel economy,” MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said. “This is not a hybrid-electric vehicle that we’re operating.”
With gas prices at an all-time high and snow blanketing much of the state Friday, it can cost a lot to clear the roads. But rising fuel costs are affecting more than filling up the tank.
“The price of oil feeds a lot of the construction materials that we work with,” McKenna said. “I don’t look at fuel any different than any other part of the enterprise in terms of our cost structure.”
Before this week’s storm, MoDOT has spent $33 million of its seasonal budget, which McKenna said is about 60%. For the winter season, the department spends anywhere from $25 million to $75 million.
“February was above average, but we really didn’t have a lot of participation before that,” McKenna said. “We had a lot of it [snow] all at once and once recently.”
Besides gas, a worker shortage is also adding costs to the agency’s bottom line. During last month’s big statewide snowstorm, the governor activated the Missouri National Guard to help.
“That enabled us to have our crews focus more on the activities that we do, as well as the Missouri Highway Patrol, where we had National Guard doing a lot of road closures and traffic control when there were incidents on the roadways,” McKenna said. “That was a big help.”
Currently, the department is short nearly 300 employees, not including the normal 300 seasonal workers MoDOT normally hires for the winter months.
“We did use a fair amount of overtime because in some cases the limitability of crews,” McKenna said.
Depending on the regions the winter storms hit, MoDOT crews will respond to one of the seven districts to help clear roadways.
“We’ve had probably 150 crews that have left their normal duty stations to help out through the winter,” McKenna said. “We had a couple of storms that were statewide, and that created the biggest challenge for us.”
Recently, the General Assembly approved a pay raise for all state workers, allocating money to all state agencies allowing them to give employees at least $15 an hour.
Neighboring states like Kansas and Illinois pay $5 to $10 more per hour than Missouri. McKenna said the department lost more than 800 in 2021. Healthy turnover is 250 workers a year he said.
The starting wage for a MoDOT driver is $14.75 an hour compared to $25 in Kansas and $20.55 in Illinois. In the last five years, the department has lost nearly 60% of its employees.
That increase won’t hit paychecks until the end of the month, but McKenna said this winter season has been tough on the department.
“We started our preliminary calls and coordination with the Missouri Highway Patrol, and with the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, and with the National Weather Services. A full 24 hours ahead of what we’ve done in the past,” McKenna said.
Those MoDOT snowplows you see on the roads are multi-use vehicles, meaning the 10-wheel dump trump are used to haul gravel and asphalt during the summer months.
The department has roughly 1,500 pieces of equipment across the state, McKenna has said previously, and it takes about 3,400 people to utilize it.
McKenna said some of those vehicles have new GPS systems installed, allowing crews to see which roads have been plowed and which haven’t. Last month alone, the department plowed 2 million miles.
Money leftover from the winter operational budget goes to things like pothole repair and patching on roadways.
“Some years you might have higher costs for chlorides that we have to absorb. Some years, we have increased cost for fuels. Some years, it just depends on what the storm is, and equipment use could be really heavy,” McKenna said. “We have to adjust and modify each year depending on where we have the ability for resources.”