With the snow about to fall but salt, sand and gas prices rising, county road officials are strategizing about how to keep roads safe and clear despite fixed budgets.
Counties throughout Michigan are preparing for the upcoming winter even though the cost of materials is increasing and no more funding is being provided to cover those increases, said William J. DeYoung, the maintenance superintendent of the Kalamazoo County Road Commission.
Over the past five years, Michigan Department of Transportation’s annual winter budget has been nearly $32 million, Nick Schirripa, a communications representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation said. For each of the past five years, $32 million has been pretty constant. When it comes to where MDOT gets its funding, each person pays a fuel tax when they pump gas or when they go to register their vehicle, this where the entire MDOT budget comes from.
Funding for the KCRC as well as every other agency throughout Michigan has remained the same over the past many years. However, this causes a problem because the cost of materials is increasing, DeYoung said. DeYoung said that counties of Michigan get their funding from the state; it comes from gas taxes and license fees. The money is then distributed to the counties, cities and villages based on population.
Larry Brown, the Managing Director for the Allegan County Road Commission, said that even though funding has remained the same, the costs of fuel for the trucks have tripled and the costs of sand and salt have doubled. For example, gas today costs about $4 per gallon, five years ago the cost of gas caused a shock if it went up to $3 a gallon. According to the state website michigan.gov, 21 years ago, the cost of salt used to be anywhere from $25 to $59; today, counties come together to buy salt in bulk due to the high prices.
Schirripa said that MDOT teams up with several other county and local agencies to buy salt in bulk at a reduced price. Schirripa said that the average price of salt is $60 per ton. salt used to cost about $40 to $50 a ton, the Kalamazoo region’s five-year average salt use is 56,000 tons. Schirripa also said that MDOT routinely stocks salt in barns and keeps plow trucks maintained and ready for use for the winter months.
For the county of Kalamazoo, DeYoung said that the KCRC is preparing for the upcoming winter by trying to come up with new ways that make snow removal more effective:
* Recently, the use of liquids for anti-icing and de-icing have been explored. The salt that is used for trucks is treated with a liquid de-icer to enhance the salt melting capabilities; it lowers the temperature at which the ice melts.
* Another process involves the use of a liquid to pre-treat the roads before it snows. This creates a layer between the road and the snow so it prevents the snow from actually sticking to the road. This will allow the plow driver to plow the road without having to put salt down first.
* Allegan County is adding “wings” to its new trucks. This allows the trucks to clear the driving lanes as well as the shoulders of the roads more effectively, and drivers can clear the roadways in one sweep instead of having to go back and clear them a second time. The county has eight of these trucks and try to replace two of them a year.
* Kalamazoo seeks to save money — and the environment — by prepping trucks so sanders are regulated and the proper amount of de-icing material is being applied.
Schirripa said that MDOT has around 100 employees driving plow trucks and each year they hire about 80 more temporary employees to complete their list of plow operators for the nine-county region of Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren.
The KCRC has 25 plow drivers for the winter; it hires 10 contractors and one or two temporary employees for the winter months.
When a storm hits, MDOT has 100 plow trucks that are used for the 81 road routes throughout the region. Each route is plowed continuously while the snow is falling, Schirripa said. After the snow has stopped falling the plow drivers are broken up into two separate eight hour shifts.
DeYoung said that the KCRC looks at the number of personnel available and breaks staff into three shifts. The priority snow routes that cover roads such as Stadium, Drake and Sprinkle begin at 12 a.m. and last until 8:30 a.m. The second shift starts at either 4 a.m. or 7:30 a.m., depending on the weather, and work until 4 p.m. The third and final shift starts at 4 p.m. and ends at 12:30 a.m.; they cover the neighborhood roads that may have been missed.
At the end of any snowy day, say officials, the primary focus is to safely and efficiently plow roads for the motoring public.