By Mark Tower, MLive
November 29, 2013
SAGINAW, MI — Though climatologists are unsure what winter will look like in the Midwest this year, state road crews in Saginaw County are geared up for whatever Mother Nature brings.
Their work to keep roads clear got rolling Nov. 25 when an early winter blast iced over roads throughout Saginaw County, forcing the temporary closure of Interstate 75 and causing more than 100 accidents before warmer weather and road salt thawed the mess.
The Michigan Department of Transportation has stockpiled 3,000 tons of road salt this year at its Buena Vista site at I-75 and M-81.
MDOT crews in Saginaw County use, on average, about 7,500 tons of salt each winter, according to Associate Region Engineer for Operations Gregg Brunner.
Brunner said MDOT’s 13-county “Bay Region,” which includes Saginaw, Midland and Bay counties, uses 50,000 tons of salt per year, on average. Last winter, he said, the region used 46,000 tons of salt on state and federal highways.
“A lot of it depends on the winter,” Brunner said.
According to records maintained by the National Climatic Data Center, more than 36 inches of snow fell in Saginaw in 2012. In 2011, according to those records, more than 80 inches of snow fell.
An expensive undertaking
Statewide, MDOT spreads about 500,000 tons of salt per year on average. All that salt adds up to a huge expense.
Last year, Brunner said, MDOT purchased salt for $54 per ton. This year, he said, the salt was purchased for about $45 per ton, meaning salt costs alone, assuming a 500,000-ton year, could be more than $22 million statewide.
Brunner said winter road maintenance in total costs the state, on average, about $89 million each year. Last year, due to a long winter, the total cost was closer to $100 million.
“Big bucks,” he said.
Salt is not the only way MDOT crews attempt to control ice and improve traction on roads. Trucks are equipped to spread sand, used in certain areas, and to treat roads with calcium chloride-based liquid deicer.
“We can only use sand on, more or less, on roads that have ditches,” he said. “Because otherwise it can get into the catch basins or storm sewer systems. So we try not to use it too much.”
The calcium chloride is drawn from two huge tanks inside a barn at the MDOT facility, where salt and sand are stored throughout the winter. The deicer can be used before a snowstorm to pre-treat bridges, curves and other trouble areas or be mixed in with truckloads of salt.
“What that does is controls the amount that the salt bounces off when it hits the roadway, so it keeps more salt on the road,” Brunner said.
In all 13 counties in the Bay Region, he said, MDOT maintains 4,500 lane miles. Of that total, 940 lane miles, are in Saginaw County.
How snowplows work
Saginaw County has 25 snowplows and 25 drivers dedicated to the task of clearing major roads.
The snowplow drivers work in two eight-hour shifts, from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Brunner said drivers, who are typically dedicated to a single route all winter, can wind up working up to 12-hour days in particularly bad weather.
For the most part, they will stick with their assigned routes for the entire winter, so they’re familiar with curbs and other things when they get buried.
Out on the road, Brunner said, snowplow drivers have a lot on their minds. While driving down the highway, their duties include watching a screen that shows salt output, operating plow blades with dual joysticks, controlling the salt spreader and communicating via radio with nearby trucks and with trucks in neighboring counties.
“Overall, our plow drivers have a lot going on when they’re driving down the road,” Brunner said. “Sometimes people drive right up on the back of them or swerve around them. ‘Don’t crowd the plow,’ or ‘Give our snowplow drivers room to groom’ are two of the buzz words we use.”
One of the two joysticks controls a “wing plow” on one side of the truck, designed to plow the road shoulder, while under-body plows beneath the truck push snow off the road surface itself.
“That wing plow makes us more efficient,” Brunner said. “Rather than make it with two trips around, you can make it with one trip around.”
Though some temporary help is brought in to help during the winter months, he said most of the snowplow drivers are the same MDOT employees doing bridge maintenance, sign work and other summertime work. All snowplow drivers go through a weeklong training and regular refresher courses, Brunner said.
We’re down numbers-wise from where we were a few years ago,” he said. “So what we’re doing is trying to be as efficient as possible, both in the equipment we’re using as well as efficient with our salt usage to try to save money.”
Which roads they plow
Brunner explained that, in Saginaw County, MDOT plows only state and federal highways.
“Basically anything that starts with an ‘M,’ an ‘I’ or a ‘US,’” he said.
In some counties, including Bay and Genesee, the county road commission contracts to plow the roads that would normally be MDOT’s responsibility.
“It just depends on where our garages are located,” Brunner said.
Though MDOT does not plow smaller roads that fall to county road commissions and local municipalities, Brunner said MDOT does work with county and local officials to prepare for emergency situations.
“We have an emergency plan in place, if it’s needed,” he said. “We can react, and if people need to get to the hospital, we can plow special ways to get them there.”
MDOT works with the National Weather Service to monitor winter weather and prepare for its maintenance activities as well as keep an eye on things during a storm, Brunner said.
“There are quite a few of us that keep an eye on the radar on a daily basis,” he said.
In addition, MDOT crews on the west side of the state can help crews in Central and Eastern Michigan prepare the weather headed their way.
The department also has a tool available for the general public at www.michigan.gov/drive. With it, motorists can see actual traffic speeds on all freeways, information on any current construction projects and any traffic incidents MDOT is observing.
Brunner said using common sense is the best advice for drivers dealing with winter weather.
“Drive as the weather conditions permit,” he said. “On a snowy or icy day, you’re not going to be able to drive 70 miles an hour like you would in the summer.”
Regardless of whether the region sees a mild winter or one of the harshest on record, Brunner said he and the rest of the MDOT crew will be ready to respond.
“Overall, safety remains the department’s number one priority,” he said.