The salt sheds were full, and the spreaders were tuned.
And as Maryland's first winter storm of the new year loomed overnight, public works crews were poised to show what they -- and hundreds of tons of sodium chloride -- could do to keep the region motoring, come what may.
"They're all sitting on pins and needles waiting for it to snow, waiting to do a good job. Every one of these guys is very proud of what he does," said George G. Balog, the city public works director. He's the man who, in his words, makes "the $12,000-an-hour decision" to roll the city's 192 trucks.
In Baltimore County, Charles R. "Dick" Harrison, the new chief of the Bureau of Highways and Equipment Maintenance, is making his debut as commander of snow operations and the county's 211 trucks.
Harrison is no weathered veteran of a snowplow cab. In fact, he has never driven one. On a visit to the mountain of salt at the county's salt shed in Texas yesterday, he wore a topcoat, wingtips, white shirt and fancy tie.
But Harrison has been fighting ice and snow for 12 years, the past 11 of them with the State Highway Administration. For six of those years, he was the SHA's district engineer in Baltimore and Harford counties.
When it comes to keeping the roads passable, Harrison said, "salt is key." Plows may be needed too, but salt, applied properly and early, is critical to ensuring that the pavement will reappear after the plows have done their work.
Without salt -- as a handful of Massachusetts cities that tried to ban road salt quickly learned -- packed snow and ice bond to the pavement like glue, and accidents and injuries increase.
Salt has its faults. Store it in the open (which now is done hardly anywhere), spill large amounts, apply too much to the roads or let it run off the wrong way and nearby wells might be contaminated. Road salt can damage plants, freshwater streams and aquatic animals. Salt also accelerates the corrosion of bridges and cars.
But none of the alternative chemical de-icers tried by public works agencies has proved as affordable and effective as plain old road salt -- sodium chloride, essentially the same stuff you shake onto your french fries.
For example, calcium and magnesium acetates work pretty well and are better environmentally. But they cost 40 times as much per ton as salt.
Environmentalists worry about road salt. They urge authorities to use less salt and more alternative chemicals in environmentally sensitive areas. But until Americans decide they don't need to drive when it snows, most recognize that salting will continue.
Diane Cameron of the Natural Resources Defense Fund said her organization "strongly supports safe winter roads. At the same time, we want a minimum of road salt to be used in order to protect trees and fish, and still meet public-safety needs."
The Maryland Department of the Environment is less worried about salt. "We don't have any great concerns about the effects of road salt on aquatic life," said MDE spokesman Quentin Banks. "If anybody notices any ill effects because of salinity, they're short-lived."
Americans began salting roads and highways in the 1930s, and the practice became widespread by the 1960s. Today, the public's demand for uninterrupted mobility had made it essential and politically sensitive.
Snow clearance is only $1.5 million of Balog's $370 million annual public works budget, but "believe me, I know how important it is," he said. Even if his crews failed to clear only one of the city's 33,000 blocks, he said, that's the one that would be on television.
Like Balog in the city, Harrison monitors the public and private weather services as storms approach, calculates their impact and dispatches the men (there are no women drivers in the county), salt and plows to combat it.
It's both art and science. "A lot depends on experience," Harrison said. "No two storms are exactly alike. With a lot of experience, you know how to make the calls, and even then you still guess wrong every once in a while."
The Texas shed is one of 12 across the county sheltering 32,000 tons of road salt. Four were built in 1994, in the wake of that year's string of ice storms, to triple the county's salt storage capacity. The 1994 storms exhausted the county's salt supply and forced the use of cinders.
Public works officials hate to use abrasives such as cinders. Balog said he has never resorted to them.
Cinders, as the county learned, have to be cleaned up in the spring. And Balog said he is "very much against sand. It goes into the storm drains and winds up in the Chesapeake Bay and causes silt." Sand also must be re-applied as earlier applications are snowed under, and that adds to labor costs.
Officials have been looking for ways to boost the effectiveness of road salt while reducing the amount applied. Better training for salt truck drivers and spreaders controlled by drivers and geared to slow when the trucks slow are part of the answer.