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How Washington Salts Its Own Wounds

Is the U.S. capital indicative of U.S. attitudes toward the environment?

January 25, 2003

Is the U.S. capital indicative of U.S. attitudes toward the environment?

Come to think of it, it is a meteorological marvel. Regardless of whether it snows or not, the streets of Washington, D.C. in winter are often covered with a crusty layer of white. Well, it’s not exactly snow. Rather, it has the feel and look of a thin layer of dry ice.

What on earth could that crusty stuff be? Salt, that’s what. In the bigger scheme of things, using salt is a curious choice.

It is environmentally harmful, which is why the substance was banned years ago in many European countries where winter is much more of a force to be reckoned with.

Take Switzerland. A mountainous country, authorities here need to rely on non-chemical tools such as "rollsplit" — a fine gravel that provides traction and is a much more environmentally-friendly way to deal with snow than salt or chemicals.

Where the Washington practice of heaping mounds of salt onto city streets becomes truly perverse is not just the environmentally harmful run-off into ground water, when the salt is subsequently washed away in a big rain.

That may upset green-minded environmentalists, but is too obscure a concern to most right-minded Americans.

Fortunately, though, the most visible form of damage occurs on the road-bed itself — and is thus very visible also for every “non-green” citizen and tax payer of the United States. As city workers pour salt onto the streets, it drifts into miniature cracks already “embedded” in the asphalt.

Then comes the next rain, creating a potent water-salt combination. When the next frost comes, it freezes over — and creates much bigger cracks and outright holes on road surfaces.

From an economic point of view, all of this really seems like a big conspiracy. The salt that is unnessarily spread throughout the city cracks up the roads.

And before you know it, the "salting" becomes an automatic employment program for the road pavement crews paid for by the city during the rest of the year.

And it is not as if Washington’s car drivers are just suffering from these practices in their capacity as tax payers. After all, pot-holed roads which need to be fixed are a costly endeavor — and add to the cost of running the city, which has to be paid for with taxes.

The other major fallout is from what these pot holes do to cars themselves. The number of times during winter that unsuspecting drivers hit a major pothole during their commutes is legion.

Typically, these “encounters” put a major strain on the front axles, may flatten tires — and create other forms of damage. Either way, car dealers' repair shops are only too happy to fix it all.

And that is why one wonders about whether the car dealers don’t have some incentives in place for city crews to pour ever more salt. From the repair shops’ perspective, pouring salt is akin to a license to print money. That’s surely worth some real incentives being handed out.

With all of those misfortunes properly recounted, the question arises of what should be done. For starters, Washington's street crews should get cracking to handle all the road cracking much more expeditiously.

How about using the Internet for this purpose? Citizens could log in findings of major potholes on heavily trafficked avenues — giving road crews four hours to provide a temporary fix.

Failure to do so will result in the layoff of another city employee. Likewise, city police cars — which always enjoy a nice cruise around town — are under an immediate reporting duty for pothole sightings.

To avoid any misunderstanding: The purpose of this proposal is not to get workers fired — but to get the attention of all managers and crews involved. Of course, city managers may argue that the salt mounds are intended to keep city streets from being icy.

True enough, one could argue that there is a certain risk here that it’s not quite cold enough in the skies to snow, so that rain falls to the ground where it turns icy. But with this year’s cold temperatures — and dry snow falling on Washington almost weekly — ice is not really a problem.

Despite this dilemma, there is no reason not to learn from the experience of other nations — like Switzerland — which have to contend with much harsher winter climates.

And they, of course, do the right thing in banning all this crusty stuff.

That may not go down well in a country currently ruled by a Republican president who is adamantly opposed to any such regulatory measures as banning good old-boy practices — even if they are mindless, ineffective and even superfluous, as they undoubtedly are in this particular case.

Still, Washington’s city management — even in these quite Republican times — should be able to abandon the practice of salting the many miniature wounds that inevitably are part and parcel of the make-up of any city. Wouldn’t it be great if we found other ways to crack up?