Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Road commissions deal wtih mild winter but smaller staffs

By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service

LANSING – Southwest Michigan county road commissions say they’re doing just fine, despite a series of winter storms.

Bruce Jones, engineer-manager at the St. Joseph County Road Commission, said his team is managing this winter well.

“We’re doing all right compared to the last couple of winters,” he said. “This time last year, we had ordered about 2,500 tons of salt. This year we’ve ordered about 1,100 tons. I don’t think we’ll be ordering any more salt or sand this season.”

The salt-sand mix is made by combining one cubic yard of salt with five cubic yards of sand, according to Jones. Sand is used because it provides extra traction for vehicles and because salt is more expensive.

Monica Ware, public relations specialist for the County Road Association of Michigan, said the salt-sand mix is used at least in part by all county road commissions.

“There may be some areas – for example, a dangerous intersection – where they still use straight salt,” she said, “but as a general rule, all of them are mixing salt and sand.”

Jones said when three St. Joseph County plow drivers retired last year their positions weren’t filled. The commission has compensated for the loss by expanding the territories covered by the remaining drivers.

“We lost two from the Three Rivers garage and one from the Centreville garage,” Jones said. “Each man is responsible for about 40 miles, so in these cases, some have taken on half of those areas.”

Ware said counties throughout the state are struggling with the same problem – taking longer to clear snow because they’re dealing with reduced staffs.

She said understaffed commissions are trying to get by with as little overtime for plow drivers as possible.

“In some cases, in subdivision streets, it’s taking one or two days after the storm before all the roads are clear,” Ware said.

Jones said his commission ordered salt in early 2009 but didn’t use much of it. That carry-over, along with what he called a mild winter, has made this year a lot easier, he said.

“We had approximately 8,000 to 9,000 tons of salt-sand mix carry over from last year,” Jones said. “That carry-over has really been a godsend,” and St. Joseph County’s salt sheds are “pretty well filled.”

“Even if another storm comes in March,” he said, “the days are warm enough so that it’ll be gone pretty quick and we won’t have the ice to contend with, which is what causes us to put the salt-sand mix down.”

If bad weather holds off, Jones said the county will save a significant amount of money in materials compared to the previous winter.

For the 2009 winter, the county spent $150,000 on salt and another $40,000 to $50,000 on sand, according to Jones.

“We’re talking in the range of $125,000 to $150,000 just in materials this year that we aren’t going to have to buy,” he said.

Brian Berndt, engineer-manager of the Berrien County Road Commission, said his county is holding up all right, too.

“So far, so good,” he said.

But it’s impossible to predict what lies ahead, Berndt said.

“I’m clueless,” he said. “You never know.”

Due to its position on Lake Michigan, Berrien County faces a different situation than St. Joseph County, Berndt said.

“When a storm rolls in, they get it different than we get it,” he said. “We get lake-effect snow.”

Berndt said his commission didn’t have any carry-over in salt or sand from last year, but seems to have enough on hand.

“I’m not getting excited yet, and I’m not getting nervous yet,” he said.

Berndt said his team of 50 daytime and four overnight snowplows has been doing a good job.

“Nobody’s yelled at me yet,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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