Which roads get salt and which get sand? How the province decides

Following concerns about icy roads on a south shore route, the province is clarifying how it decides what roads to salt or sand.

Salt is an environmental concern in some areas

The province says last year approximately 28,000 tons of salt were distributed, compared to nearly 95,000 tons of sand. (Isabella Zavarise/CBC)

Following concerns about icy roads on a south shore route, the province is explaining how it decides what roads are salted or sanded

Stephen Szwarc, the acting director for the maintenance division for the Department of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy said his department looks at environmental concerns, pavement conditions and traffic patterns. 

Szwarc said in general, salt is used on main highways while secondary roads get sand.

"A lot of its based on traffic counts. I mean our main highways do have quite a bit more traffic so we look at that," he said.

'It's a contaminant'

"There's quite a bit of factors that go into determining which ones get salt and which ones get sand."

Stephen Szwarc, with highway maintenance, says salt is used more sparingly because it's considered a contaminant. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

He said the decision to use salt is carefully considered.

"Anytime that you're using salt, it's a contaminant," he said.

"We have houses that are close to the roadway, so we can get contaminant wells. We can also contaminate streams, brooks, wetlands so it's something that we take very seriously."

Considering alternatives

For traction control, Szwarc said sand is a great material.

He also mentioned the benefits of the province's pre-wetting system which uses brine.  

This is one of the sand blends used to provide traction to roads in the winter. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Trucks spray the brine solution on dry salt before it's applied to the roadway. 

"The intent is that we are able to apply less salt on the roadway while maintaining the same effectiveness level of service," he said. 

Some Canadian cities such as Calgary have been utilizing beet brine to de-ice roads.

Szwarc said the province isn't ruling this out and is looking into the effectiveness of additives to melt ice. 

He said last year, approximately 28,000 tons of salt were used, while nearly 95,000 tons of sand were distributed, for a total cost of $4 million. The salt and sand each cost $2 million, with the salt being more expensive per ton.  

"Depending on the severity of the season, freeze thaw will mean that we either use more salt or more sand so it just kind of depends on the winter," Szwarc added.

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About the Author

Isabella Zavarise is a video journalist with CBC in P.E.I. You can contact her at