FLAGSTAFF — State transportation officials, who sold about 100 vehicles from their fleet to help close a $100 million deficit and pay for plowing last winter, say they aren't expecting major budget constraints in the upcoming snow season.
Warehouses across the state are stocked with 24,000 tons of deicer, and the nearly 200 snowplows are serviced and staffed as officials prepare for the first major snowfall.
"As long as we don't have something like last year, then our budget will be able to handle the winter," Department of Transportation spokesman Rod Wigman said Wednesday.
Officials say while the budget still is a concern, it has largely stabilized after March's vehicle sale to pay for the costly plowing of highways during and after last winter's storms.
Transportation officials expect to pay anywhere from $3 million to $7 million for snowplowing and winter storm maintenance, depending on the severity of the winter season. Nearly 400 transportation employees are trained and licensed to operate snowplows and typically work 12-hour shifts during winter storms.
Part of their training includes eight to 16 hours on a snowplow simulator, which resembles a race car arcade game. Potential operators must navigate snowpacked roads, and trainers can create obstacles by putting pedestrians, cars and elk on the screen.
Snowplows ran nearly nonstop last winter to clear roads for those who dared to drive on them.
The Flagstaff area was hit particularly hard with an above-average 144 inches of snow. In January, residents saw 4½ feet of snow — the third-highest total recorded for a five-day snowfall — during an El Nino season.
The snowfall caused $4.1 million in damage to the state highway infrastructure.
It's unclear what this year will bring.
Weather forecasters say this winter will be characterized by La Nina. The conditions correlate with warmer weather in the South and East because they allow the jet stream, which brings warmer temperature, to wander north.
About two in every three La Nina patterns have brought below-normal precipitation to Arizona's high country.
"There's a little more uncertainty about whether this is going to bring above- or below-normal precipitation," said Nick Petro, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.
Since 1950, Flagstaff has seen an average yearly snowfall of 96 inches. During La Nina years, average snowfall in the mountain city is 88 inches.
Payson gets an average 2 feet of snowfall a year, and about 5 inches less in La Nina years.
Whatever the winter brings, transportation officials say it's best to be prepared with a full tank of gas, tire chains, food and water, and details about road conditions.
They urge drivers to keep a safe distance from snowplows and to brake slowly on wet or slippery roads.
Transportation officials say roads won't be closed unless conditions call for it.