MDOT orders drop in monitoring this winter; sheriff’s patrols to help
It’s only Nov. 26, but already Mason County has had a couple episodes of snowy and icy roads, with Monday’s snow on a windy and blustery day being the most widespread so far.
Emergency responders were kept busy with at least nine accidents or slide-offs Monday even as Mason County Road Commission and city road crews worked to clear the snow from the roads.
As the snow fell, Mason County Road Commission Managing Director Gary Dittmer and Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole sat down to discuss winter road clearing plans.
Cole had heard rumors at township meetings that the road commission was going to reduce coverage this winter and Dittmer was there to assure the sheriff that was not the case — with one exception.
The Michigan Department of Transportation, which contracts with the MCRC for clearing of state highways in the county, has ordered a reduction in the amount of patrolling of roads to monitor conditions. It is calling for Mason County to limit patrolling done under the MDOT contract to 80 hours per week.
Previously, the road commission would monitor state highways around the clock in winter. Now, monitoring will only be done routinely between the hours of 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., leaving gaps in patrol.
Dittmer said patrols will take place even in the unscheduled hours if conditions warrant it or a snow or ice event is expected.
Dittmer asked Cole if he could have Mason County Sheriff’s road patrol officers on duty when the MCRC road monitoring patrol isn’t out, to call in reports to Mason-Oceana Emergency Dispatch, if warranted. Central dispatch in turn would contact a MCRC supervisor to either get a patrol or clearing crew out, as warranted.
Cole agreed, noting some of his road patrol deputies are trained as weather observers.
Both Cole and Dittmer said that sheriff’s road patrols have a long history of working closely and well with the road commission reporting trouble spots they encounter. Dittmer said the road commission, in turn, tries to respond as quickly as possible to those requests from the sheriff’s patrol or other emergency agencies in the county.
He did caution, however, it can take 30 to 45 minutes from the time of a call to central dispatch for a MCRC plow or sander to get to the site just because of logistics.
Dittmer said he isn’t pleased with the MDOT-ordered reduction in road commission road condition patrols, in fact he said he opposed it “vehemently,” but that ultimately the MDOT order is caused by the inability of the Michigan Legislature and Michigan governor to come to an agreement on a long-standing impasse over road funding in the state that goes at least back to the Engler administration.
MDOT pays MCRC $600,000 a year to maintain the 82 miles of state highway in Mason County. Dittmer estimates 60 percent of that amount is spent on winter maintenance: plowing, salting and sanding those miles of highway to MDOT standards.
CLEARING POLICIES, PRIORITIES
As for how the MCRC will tackle road clearing this year, Dittmer shared the MCRC’s winter maintenance operations policy with Cole. The policy has been in place since 2006 and will again be in effect this winter.
It sets four main objectives for MCRC road crews:
• Reduce driving hazards caused by snow and icy roads.
•Assist emergency services personnel in the performance of their duties.
• Reduce the shutdown of schools and businesses by eliminating hazardous road conditions in a timely manner.
• Maintain safe traffic routes for normal movement of the public.
Dittmer asks the public to remember snow and ice can’t be removed from all roads in the county at the snap of a finger. Plow crews’ routes can take two work days to fully complete if the snow is heavy, he said. And if the snow keeps coming, high priority roads are kept clear, even if it means some local roads don’t get cleared as quickly.
The policy sets five levels of priority:
See ROADS, page A8
From page A1
• Priority 1: State highway routes including U.S. 31, U.S. Business Route 31, U.S. 10 and M-116 north of Bryant Road.
• Priority 2: County major primary roads including Jebavy Drive from U.S. 10 to Angling Road, Stiles Road from U.S. 10 to Fountain Road, Sugar Grove Road from U.S. 31 to Stiles Road, Chauvez Road from U.S.BR 31 to Brye Road, Sixth Street from Meyers Road to Sherman Street, Nelson Road from U.S. 10 to Johnson Road, Johnson Road from Nelson Road to Jebavy, Bryant Road from Jebavy to Washington Avenue, and Pere Marquette Highway from U.S. BR 31 to County Line Road.
• Priority 3: County minor primary collectors. These are the roads that feed the above mentioned routes.
• Priority 4: Hard surfaced local roads.
• Priority 5: Gravel surfaced roads.
Each priority also comes with level of service. State highways have a bare pavement policy under the contract with MDOT. County primary roads call for 2 feet in the center to be bare. County minor primary connectors call for blading snow accumulations in excess of one inch, while the other roads call for blading in excess of five inches of accumulation.
Seasonal roads are not plowed at all.
MCRC maintains 237 miles of primary roads and 650 miles of local roads in the county.
Dittmer said 15 to 20 guys will be out plowing this winter, but cautioned, “We can’t snap our fingers and have it all cleared at once.”
The windier it is, as it was Monday, the worse it is because the wind blows snow onto roadways where traffic can pack it into ice, even if the snow has stopped falling. ‘Wind is our biggest problem in Mason County,” Dittmer said.
Another problem — one Cole might be able to relate to since at any given time he has no more than three sheriff’s road patrols out to cover the entire county — is one of resources available versus geography to cover.
“We can’t be everywhere at one time,” is how Dittmer put it.
The road commission policy also means on weekends, if a snowfall is less than 5 inches, some roads won’t see a crew clearing until Monday when regular work hours resume. His plow crews come on duty at 7 a.m., unless called in early.
Why not plow earlier?
That’s a question Dittmer said he hears frequently.
The answer, ultimately, he said is his crews are only people and can only work so many hours a day. If they came in earlier, they’d have to stop earlier.
He said he’d rather get people home safely from work or school at the expense of some mornings not being able to have roads cleared so they can get to school or work, rather than strand them at school or work because crews had to call it a day.
The modern road plow trucks, he said, require drivers to do more. In addition to pushing snow, almost all now also sand and salt. How much sand and salt are applied is in part prescribed by the policy and in part by conditions. Intersections, curves and potential trouble spots get sand and salt in some cases on county and local roads, if warranted, even if the entire roadway isn’t sanded or salted. There are also more electronics to be aware of in the modern trucks, Dittmer said. Several trucks now also have sidewing plows that widen the area plowed in the same pass that the units are plowing the traffic lane. That saves in the number of times a truck must go up or down a road, he said, but also takes more concentration.
This is a year of transition for MCRC with five new crew members, two new foremen and Dittmer ready to step out of the manager’s role at year’s end when Wayne Schoonover takes over Jan. 1. Dittmer will remain on staff to help as road engineer, but Schoonover will be in charge.