ESCANABA - With winter weather upon us plows and salt trucks are sure to be common sights on local roads, but keeping roads safe for travel can be a challenge for road workers.
"We're at Mother Nature's mercy really. We deal with whatever she gives us," said Jody Norman, interim manager of the Delta County Road Commission.
While the commission is responsible for maintaining roads throughout the county, high priority is given to US 2 from the Bark River area to the Schoolcraft County line, which the commission tries to keep in "wet" condition. North and southbound M-35 and US 41 must be kept travelable.
"(On a weekend) if we get half an inch and it's slippery we'll go out and do the mainline roads," said Norman.
If only the mainline roads require maintenance five road commission workers can plow and salt the roads in a span of four hours. However, if five inches or more falls or there is drifting, county road crews will begin maintaining other roads in their jurisdiction.
Salt and sand are used to keep paved roads wet and travelable, however salt is not effective at temperatures below 16 degrees. Gravel roads are not plowed due to the amount of gravel that would be removed in the process, but road workers try to maintain a reasonable snow-pack for drivers to travel on.
Despite a rise in the cost of maintaining and operating equipment, road commission funding has remained stagnant over the past few years. On average it costs the road commission $700,000 to maintain the county road system, not including roads the commission maintains for the Michigan Department of Transportation. However, the cost of maintaining roads is weather dependent and maintaining the county's roads can fluctuate from $500,000 to as much as $900,000 in a season.
"There's nothing that we do that is cheap," said Norman.
The Delta County Road Commission spends $46 a ton for road salt - a significant savings compared to the $55 or more a ton counties located further from ports must spend to have salt shipped to them - but even at this low rate costs add up.
"On a typical storm you can probably expect 90 tons on the MDOT system and about 50 tons on the county system," said Norman, adding that for a typical winter the commission uses 1,500 tons for the county, 3,500 tons for MDOT roads, and maintains 500 tons to use as backup.
Because funding for the commission has not changed and winter road maintenance can be unpredictable, harsh winters can change the amount of funding available for road resurfacing, construction, and other projects.
"If we have another winter like we did last year it will affect the projects we can do in the summer," said Norman.
City roads do not fall under the jurisdiction of the county road commission but still require maintenance to keep drivers safe.
"If it starts getting slippery we'll get the salt out and hit the hot spots, and if it gets worse we'll send the whole crew out," said Escanaba Assistant Public Works Director Steve Ammel.
The city purchased 584 tons of salt to be mixed with sand and applied to city streets. Major streets, like Ludington Street, Lakeshore Drive, Water Plant Road; areas around schools; and intersections take top priority when it comes to salting and plowing, but other roadways are plowed as needed.
"You try to determine the best you can how much you'll need. Some winters are hard and some are soft so you try to determine what you need the best you can," said Ammel.
In both Escanaba and Gladstone the available funding has been relatively stable the last few years, but like the road commission cities face challenges when it comes to budgeting for the rising cost of maintaining streets in unpredictable seasons.
"We went about 10 percent over our budget last year," said Gladstone Public Works Superintendent Barry Lund, adding the costs were absorbed by the city and there are no effects of last year's harsh winter on this year's snow removal budget.
On average Gladstone maintains about 300 tons of road salt, but the city managed to save roughly 100 tons of late winter backup salt from last season. The salt is applied to roads throughout the city, but when the weather gets rough in Gladstone priority is given to Delta Avenue and the South Hill Road for street maintenance.
"It's kind of based on the road conditions. Three to four inches we'll go out early," said Lund, noting that an early morning for Gladstone Public Works road crews starts about 2 a.m.
Crews are also faced with frequent equipment breakdowns. In Gladstone the average age of a snow plow truck is 19-and-a-half years old. Lund hopes to have a new plow truck included in the budget next year.
"(Breakdowns are caused by) minor stuff but downtime is downtime," said Lund.
No matter where drivers are in Delta County they are asked to proceed with caution when road conditions are bad.
"We always ask people to drive carefully and slow down when the weather is like this. It makes a difference," said Ammel.