ESCANABA - With winter quickly approaching, snow will soon fall and plows will be out and about clearing the roads for safe travel. For the Delta County Road Commission, this means prioritizing where to plow given smaller staffing levels and limited resources.
According to Delta County Road Commission Managing Director Rob VanEffen, many people don't realize there are three different jurisdictions of roads in the county - state highways, county roads and city streets - each with their own funding sources.
County roads are further divided into county primary roads, which are named by a three-digit number, and the county local roads, which are designated a letter representing a specific township and a number that follows it. County local roads are typically dead-end roads and those that lead to people's homes, he explained.
"The road commission is responsible, by contract, for the state highways for winter maintenance, as well as the county primary and county local roads," said VanEffen. "The way we plow snow is pretty much based on traffic volume. The first thing done is state highways."
The road commission's winter maintenance budget through MDOT for this year is approximately $680,000 to take care of 340 lane miles of state highway. They also receive a $790,000 winter maintenance budget to take care of 880 miles of county roads.
VanEffen said the road commission is down to 21 full-time employees available as plow drivers, as well as approximately eight part-time, on-call employees that come in as needed. He noted things have really changed in just more than 20 years. In 1991, there were six garages and 63 full-time employees. Now they are down to two garages and 28 total employees.
"For winter, we also have a night crew, which is covered from 10 in the evening to 6 in the morning," said VanEffen. "We've got a minimum of two people that cover the county. Their priority is the state highways."
He said the night crew watches the road conditions on highways, and as snowy conditions develop, they take care of it. As snow continues to fall and gets to a point where the amount is hard to handle, they call in the rest of the crew for assistance. Some employees work 12 to 14 hours a day during snowstorms.
"Everything depends on the storm itself, but the goal is to have the highways cleared by 6 or 6:30 in the morning," said VanEffen. "Sometimes we can reach that goal, sometimes we can't."
One common misconception people have about the road commission is where funding comes from, according to VanEffen.
"The thing that a lot of people don't understand is that here in Delta County, property taxes do not go to the road commission to support roads," he said. Instead, funding is provided via the Michigan Transportation Fund, with money coming from the motor fuel tax - comprised of 19 cents per gallon on gasoline and 15 cents per gallon on diesel fuel - as well as registration fees. When people use more fuel-efficient vehicles, carpool, or use public transportation, this can impact funding levels.
"With the funding being based on a flat rate per gallon, as gas goes up, people buy less, our money comes down," noted VanEffen.
In fiscal year 1999, the commission received $3,653,000 in funding from the MTF, a number that, more than 10 years later is relatively the same figure as FY 2012, $3,693,000.
Because of funding and staffing levels, VanEffen urges patience this winter.
"With winter maintenance, people are going to have to be patient," he said, noting it might take two days to get to some local roads when the area is hit by a two- or three-day storm. "We just don't have the people anymore," he added.
VanEffen said over the years, the road commission has increased efficiency with its snow plows. Some of these changes have included adding wings to plow trucks, so a local road can be plowed in one pass in and out, as opposed to two passes needed. They've also added certain capabilities to the plow trucks, such as having their own sander.
"On the state highway for MDOT, we use pure salt to melt the ice and snow as quickly as possible," said VanEffen. "Another thing we have done on the county system to try and stretch the dollar is we use pure salt on the high traffic areas, but as the traffic volume starts to drop, we use a mix of sand and salt, and will even use pure sand on some roads."
VanEffen also stated that motorists need to be aware that salt will generally not work with temperatures below about 19 degrees.
The road commission tries to get as much winter maintenance done with as little funding as possible, as they use the remaining money for construction and road improvements in the summer.
VanEffen said with winter maintenance, one issue is damaged mailboxes, the vast majority of which are not damaged by the plow itself, but by the snow coming off the plow.
When damaged, the road commission's policy is for a person to bring in their damaged mailbox to receive a voucher for purchasing a new standard box at a local hardware store. The road commission has also encountered mailboxes constructed with concrete block or bricks, which VanEffen noted is illegal and a safety hazard to plows and the motoring public.
With the funding the road commission receives and its limited staff, the plowing crew is an outstanding group, according to VanEffen.
"They have the know-how and the capability. They get as much done as they possibly can," he said. "As short-staffed as we are and as many roads as we have to plow, it's going to take time but they will get it done. I ask people to be patient and drive according to conditions. We're doing the best we can with what we've got."