Winter woes

ESCANABA – This season’s severe winter is taking its toll on snow removal and road maintenance budgets.

“We’re not doing real good. We’re actually doing quite poorly,” said Jody Norman, interim manager of the Delta County Road Commission.

In addition to maintaining roads for the Michigan Department of Transportation, the commission is responsible for primary and local roads in the county that are not maintained by municipalities.

“Right now we’re roughly $100,000 over the cost of last year’s winter at this time,” said Norman, noting this year the winter season began early and last year winter really didn’t hit the area until January.

So far this winter the commission has spent 39 percent of its $1 million primary road budget and 36 percent of its $1 million local road budget keeping up with the road conditions.

“That’s not just winter, that’s general day-to-day operating costs,” said Norman.

In addition to the day-to-day expenses of operation and paying plow drivers, the road commission must maintain stores of road salt for winter storms. Currently the commission has 1,700 tons of salt left for MDOT and the county’s District 1 road systems, which span 935 miles.

Four-thousand tons of salt to be divided equally among the MDOT and local systems is expected to be delivered in the coming week. The salt cost the road commission $52 per ton.

“Winter is just very expensive,” said Norman.

A second district located north of Rapid River that maintains its own salt shed has 1,900 tons of salt in reserve. That district spans 826 miles of roadway.

Because the road budgets are also used for summer road projects, a high cost winter can limit the funding available to maintain roads in the summer months as well.

“When we come out of winter we’ll look at what out budget is and we’ll see what we can do as far as maintenance,” said Norman.

Keeping within budget is a balancing act for the road commission, and cuts have been made. Currently, the commission maintains 14 snow plow routes in the county, which are operated by 10 full-time snowplow drivers and a handful of part time drivers.

“We really can’t cut any further than we already are. There’s just nothing left,” said Norman.

While Norman notes that the public has been understanding of the changes in service that have been made over the years due to a lack of available road funding, he believes future cuts to services may not be as well received.

One plan the commission is considering is limiting which roads are plowed when snow falls on a weekend – and road commission workers receive overtime pay.

“I would say that 25 percent of the roads county-wide would get plowed, and that would be about it,” said Norman.

The commission would still plow all MDOT roads in its jurisdiction, all major primary roads, and roads with heavy through traffic.

“I’m not saying we are (going to limit weekend plowing), but that’s pretty much our last straw,” said Norman.

Cities are also working to keep their salt supplies adequate during this exceptionally difficult winter.

“We’re actually doing pretty good,” said Gladstone Public Works Director Barry Lund.

The City of Gladstone Department of Public Works, which maintains 40 miles of city roads, 12 miles of alleys, and five parking lots in the city, received a shipment of winter back-up salt Wednesday. The city now has 200 tons of salt available.

“We probably went through our winter budget this year in January, so we’re looking at being over budget,” said Lund.

Additional costs related to snow plowing winter street maintenance can be taken from the street fund. However, like the county road commission, the cost of maintaining the salt store and paying plow drivers could jeopardize other street projects in the future.

“It’d mostly be construction at first,” said Lund, noting that summer maintenance projects would be less likely to be affected by the reduction in funding.

In Escanaba salt levels are holding strong, partly due to a surplus of salt left over from last year’s milder winter.

“On salt we’re doing pretty good,” said City Engineer and Director of Escanaba Public Works Bill Farrell. “We started out the year completely full.”

On average the city maintains about 1,500 tons of salt for city plowing, which is applied to roads in a mixture of 25 percent salt to 75 percent sand.

In addition to the salt supplies that the city currently has, due to the city’s agreement with the MiDEAL government purchasing program, the city has a reserve order of salt still available to them.

“Our late reserve is still waiting for us. I haven’t heard of anyone having problems getting their reserve,” said Farrell, adding that by the end of the winter the city would need the reserve salt.

While Farrell believes the city has spent roughly 50 percent more this season than at this time last year, he is not overly concerned that the city will go over budget this season.

“I think it’s too early to tell. We budget for an average winter. The last two years we’ve been under budget, but this year we believe we’ll be at or above budget,” he said.

If the city does go over budget, funding for street plowing will be taken from the local and major street funds. Farrell believes this would have more impact on maintenance projects than on construction projects due to grant requirements on construction projects planned for the summer.