Fewer Truck Drivers This Winter Means Slicker Roads In Oakland Township
The Road Commission for Oakland County, which handles most roads in the township, has fewer drivers and resources than in previous years. How will it affect road safety?
Oakland Township resident Maureen Moons spent part of Sunday afternoon sitting in a ditch at Gallagher and Silver Bell roads after sliding off snow-covered roads not yet plowed. And although the recent Texas transplant doesn't have much to compare it with, the state of the township's roads during the first major snowstorm of the season didn't make a great first impression.
"It was slow motion," said Moons. "I was laughing, going, 'I'm going in, I'm going in!' My sisters are never going to let me forget this."
With fewer truck drivers employed to clear the roads in Oakland Township – and with budget shortcomings that limit the amount of salt and other resources that can be used to clear the roads – the roads will likely be in even worse condition this year than in previous years.
Indeed, Oakland Township's schools were forced to close in the two days following Sunday's winter storm, which dumped several inches of snow on the township before frigid temperatures turned the roads to ice.
In the phone call the district put out to parents Monday night, Rochester Community Schools specifically cited road conditions as the reason for Tuesday's school closures. As of Tuesday night, Orion Road and other main roads in the township still had numerous icy patches, and most of the township's side streets were still covered in compacted snow.
Brent Bair, managing director of the Road Commission for Oakland County, addresses the issue directly in a recent YouTube video blog, saying, "I'm afraid I've got to tell you that the level of service provided by the road commission isn't going to be up to what it has been in past years."
He added, "We have almost 50 fewer truck drivers to man our trucks this winter – that's because of declining revenues."
According to the United States Census Bureau, Michigan ranks fairly high in per-capita spending in the areas of health, education and welfare when compared with other states. Unfortunately, it falls short when it comes to winter road maintenance.
"We have consistently been in the bottom 10 states in the nation per-capita funding since at least 1964," said Craig Bryson, public information officer for the Road Commission.
Oakland Township, by law, cannot have jurisdiction over its roads, said Bryson. He added that the road commission owns and maintains almost all of the roads in Oakland Township.
The road commission's revenue comes from the gas tax and the vehicle registration fee, both of which have decreased in recent years. Road maintenance is not financed through property taxes, which is a common misconception.
To exacerbate the issue, the state's high unemployment rate means fewer people are driving to work. Additionally, vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, and fewer cars are being sold. This negatively affects both sources of funding for the road commission.
"Between 2000 and 2009, our revenues dropped almost 5 percent," Bryson explained. "During that time, all of the expenses associated with maintaining and building roads rose dramatically, so we've got way less money coming in while our costs are going up."
Today there are 108 fewer employees at the road commission than there were in 2007 – nearly a 20 percent decrease.
Despite major cuts in staff, safety still dictates how salt truck and plow drivers are deployed.
"The busiest roads with the most traffic and the highest speeds, we're covering at the highest level most of the time," Bryson said. "We get to [subdivision streets] after everything else is done because there's far fewer cars and they're traveling a lot slower."
After a snowfall, a salt truck covers each of Oakland County's 106 "salt runs." This has always been the case, even before major downsizing. Those drivers are allowed to be on the roads for 16-hour shifts; 84 backup drivers picked up when those initial drivers came off duty. Now, there are only 40 backups – thus the number of trucks in operation on that second shift are reduced dramatically.
"We're trying to find efficiencies in all aspects of our operations, and we're doing more with less people," said Bryson. "The problem is, we can't do more until we get more money."
Alternate methods of snow removal do exist; in fact, there is a whole industry devoted to de-icing. Some argue that sustainable sugar beet byproducts, for example, could help the state's agricultural economy and environment, but the industry standard of salt remains most popular deicer in the county.
Oakland County has also recently begun to spray liquid brine – naturally occurring salt water – over the salt. The method successfully uses less salt and is more efficient. The county houses three wells, which allows the tanker trucks to easily access the brine from nearly any part of the county.
Spraying liquid brine before a snowfall also treats roads so that ice forms more gradually, buying the road commission more time to clear the roads.
Bryson said he hopes the state legislature will raise the gas tax and vehicle registration fee to increase the road commission's funding.
"If you look at our gas tax compared to the rest of the nation, Michigan's gas tax is below average, and it's lower than most of the Great Lakes states," Bryson said.
"Ours is 19 cents per gallon; Ohio is 28 cents per gallon."
Back at Gallagher and Silver Bell, new resident Moss waited for help while nearby, Deb Schmonduik and her family sat parked in front of the tow truck that had just pulled them out of the same ditch. Schmonduik, who lives in the neighborhood, admitted that the roads in their neighborhood aren't usually plowed immediately.
Some Oakland Township residents are more concerned than others, and see keeping the roads cleared as a priority.
"It's a public safety issue," said Sue Poosch, a Lyon Gear & Machine employee. "It's important that they not cut back."