Road Commission: Storm Cleanup May Be Slower This Year
Budget cuts and a decrease in staffing will again affect the Road Commission for Oakland County's ability to clear the roads after a winter storm.
After receiving much criticism for its response to last year's Dec. 12 snowstorm and icy road conditions, the Road Commission for Oakland County is preemptively warning drivers and residents to be extra careful on the roads today and throughout the season.
Budget cuts in recent years have left the agency with fewer employees to maintain and drive an aging fleet of snowplows and salt trucks.
"The first snow always catches some drivers off guard," RCOC public information officer Craig Bryson said, "so we want to remind everyone to use caution, assume the roads are slippery and slow down so we can all make it home."
With 3-5 inches of snow expected to fall tonight and into tomorrow, Bryson said the RCOC is prepared to handle the roads during and after the storm.
"Our plan is to probably start sending some trucks out somewhere between 8 and 10 tonight, starting with a small amount of trucks, as needed," Bryson said. "By about 2 a.m., we expect to have our full 106 trucks on the road and hit things hard leading up to the morning rush hour."
Bryson added, "A lot of it depends on what the weather does tonight."
Though the RCOC is prepared to handle this storm, it may not always be able to clear the roads as quickly as it has in the past, Bryson said. The agency is faced with a decrease in staffing, a budget that has not changed in years as gas prices have gone up, and a fleet of aging vehicles that need to be replaced.
"We haven’t bought a truck in more than four years," Bryson said. "We’re at a point where a lot of the trucks should be replaced, but we don’t have the money to replace them."
This winter, the commission will also have about 50 fewer drivers than in 2007, which will impact the agency's ability to clear the roads in the event of a prolonged storm, RCOC Board Chairman Eric Wilson said.
“We’re down several employees from last year," Bryson added.
During a major snow or ice storm, RCOC sends out 106 snowplows and salt trucks to clear the roads. The initial drivers can stay on the road for up to 16 hours before they are required to take a break, according to RCOC rules.
In the past, RCOC was able to replace the initial 106 drivers with up to 84 drivers for a second 16-hour shift during prolonged storms. Like last year, however, the agency will have fewer than 40 drivers on the second shift.
"That’s a substantial reduction in our ability to fight a prolonged storm, or even a series of small storms, or to clean up after a storm," RCOC Vice Chairman Greg Jamian said.
The reduction in staff is a direct result of declining state road funding for RCOC, Jamian said.
"Our primary source of operating funds – the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees – fell for the last five years in a row,” RCOC board member Ron Fowkes said. "Those five years of decline follow nearly 10 years of virtually flat revenues. We’ll receive less funding in the current fiscal year than we received in 2000.”
So far, the commission has been able to avoid layoffs by not replacing employees as they leave or retire, according to the RCOC. The agency currently has 122 fewer employees than in 2007.
"We are not happy about this situation,” Wilson said. “Safety is RCOC’s number-one priority, and it pains us greatly to have to reduce the level of service we can provide.”
"Because of the reduced level of service we will be able to provide this winter, it’s critical that motorists be aware of the road conditions and drive appropriately for those conditions," Jamian said. "We simply can’t salt or plow the roads as (we) have in the past."
RCOC by the numbers
- RCOC uses an average of 83,000 tons of salt per winter. "All the salt facilities are full," Bryson said. "We're sitting on 30,000 tons of salt right now."
- RCOC expects to spend about $4 million on salt alone this winter (cost per ton of salt is $46.51).
- RCOC has jurisdiction over 2,700-plus miles of county roads (including subdivision and gravel roads) divided into 106 salt "routes."
- RCOC also maintains 230 miles of mostly multi-lane state highways – the equivalent of more than 1,500 miles of one-lane pavement – on behalf of the Michigan Department of Transportation.
- RCOC expects to spend about $12 million on winter road maintenance this year alone, including about $4.4 million to maintain the state highways for MDOT.
- At temperatures below 20 degrees, salt begins to lose its effectiveness. At 10 degrees, it does virtually nothing.
- RCOC keeps salt trucks loaded and ready to go 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
- A snowstorm for one day can have a $146 million impact on the state's economy (source: the non-profit Salt Institute, Alexandria, VA).
- A single new RCOC snowplow/salt truck costs about $200,000.
- RCOC has about 135 snowplows and salt trucks and 19 "road graders" used to plow heavy snow.
- Fully loaded RCOC snowplows get about 4 miles per gallon. Empty, they get about 6 miles per gallon.
(Source: Road Commission for Oakland County)