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Credit: PUBLIC WORKS

READER POLL:The American Road & Transportation Builders Association forecasts a 4.4% drop in the U.S. highway and bridge construction market in 2011. What's the biggest factor for the decline?

You're probably all too familiar with this phenomenon, but until recently I never realized how many criminal contortions a humble commodity like salt inspires.

Road salt, that is. The stuff that makes or breaks political careers in my hometown of Chicago and the 38 states that get some sort of winter precipitation. As if best-guesstimating weather conditions that not even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can predict, figuring out how to pay for your operation's stockpile, and submitting your request through a state contract on time isn't fun enough, you have to physically guard the stuff 24/7.

And apparently even that's not enough to deter thieves.

In one incident, guards thought the gentleman who made off with 135 tons of the stuff was a coworker. In England, 10 men posing as subcontractors showed up with a Range Rover and a mechanical loading shovel, then dropped the ruse and overwhelmed public works employees before making off with an unspecified amount. In 2009, someone with at least a dozen dump trucks pilfered 200 tons from a Washtenaw County Road Commission depot in Michigan. Two former Illinois DOT employees (“full-time temporary workers,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times) were recently indicted for stealing six tons for a local business owner who — and I think this is only fair — was also indicted.

As with any commodity, there's also the possibility of price-fixing.

Ohio's attorney general is considering taking legal action against Cargill Deicing Technology and Morton Salt for “sham bidding” practices that have cost the state DOT $59 million over the last decade. But is it the companies' fault? In the Rodney Dangerfield world of public service, not necessarily. Apparently, the state should have verified that ALL the salt it received came from Ohio before rejecting, per Buy Ohio standards, bids that came in lower.

And let's not even talk about the tug-of-war between environmentalists who are justifiably concerned about salt-soaked waterways and road managers charged with providing safe driving conditions. And they say government employees are the problem?

Feel free to share this article the next time anyone wonders aloud how hard can it be to keep the streets plowed.

- Stephanie Johnston,
Editor in Chief

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