Road Commission Promises Changes After Sunday's Snow Storm
The Road Commission for Oakland County promised to make changes to its salting policy in the wake of Sunday's storm and subsequent icy roads.
Changes are coming, managers of the Road Commission for Oakland County promised Thursday in the wake of the commission's much-criticized response to this week's snowstorm and icy road conditions.
While managers said weather conditions made icy roads unavoidable, the commission's incoming chairman pressed them to do more to avoid a repeat.
Sunday, about 7 inches of snow fell on the area and a rapid drop in temperatures led to the icy roads that night and Monday, managers said, even as crews tried to clear the county's snowfall. Schools were closed Monday and Tuesday in Oakland Township, as well as most of the county, while drivers dodged fish tails and spin-outs.
In Oakland Township, Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Nault's cruiser collided with an out-of-control SUV on Orion Road during Sunday's storm. Though the officer returned to duty a few days later, his cruiser experienced "heavy front-end damage, and it will be out of commission for several weeks," said Lt. Thomas Parker, the substation commander.
Though the commission doesn't maintain every road in Oakland County, it is responsible for more than 2,700 miles of roadway and 230 miles of state highways. It is the second largest road maintenance organization in the state, second only to the Michigan Department of Transportation.
While not a formal agenda item, this winter's first major storm dominated discussion at Thursday's monthly road commission meeting at its administrative office in Beverly Hills. The commission reported receiving roughly 600 incident reports related to the storm and about 800 calls, many from irate motorists. There were no reports of storm-related fatalities.
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. Though 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."
"We were out doing what we could," said Darryl Heid, director of highway maintenance for the Road Commission for Oakland County. "The thing that really hurt us was the low, low temperatures," which caused snow and slush to turn to ice.
Because of that, the county Road Commission will change its salting policy, Deputy Managing Director Dennis Kolar said. The commission will now keep spreading road salt in temperatures down to 15 degrees, Kolar said, ending its normal 20-degree cutoff.
"The Southfield district tried it and things appeared to be somewhat better there," Kolar noted. He cautioned, however, that road salt is only fully effective in temperatures above 18 degrees Fahrenheit.
While traction-improving sand is used to supplement road salt in rural areas, including stretches of Orion Road, it generally isn't used in more developed portions of the county because it clogs storm sewers.
Staff also needs to draft an "action plan" by next month to secure additional drivers during major snowfalls, incoming Road Commission Chairman Eric Wilson said.
"We can say it was the weather, but the public just won't accept that," said Wilson, a Lake Orion resident who called himself "one of those stuck for four hours on I-75" during the storm's aftermath.
In a news release last month, the Road Commission warned it would have fewer staffers to drive and maintain the snow plows/salt trucks because of declining state road funding, meaning winter storm cleanups will take longer than in past years.
"This winter, we will have about 50 fewer employees to drive snow plows/salt trucks," RCOC Board Chairman Richard Skarritt said in the release. "That is about one-third fewer drivers this year than we had in 2007."
This year, the Road Commission cut back on its "second shift" drivers, reducing the crew of 84 roughly in half, due to budget constraints. The second shift conducts clean up work after the first 16-hour shift is completed.
The Road Commission might consider using tri-party road funds pay for temporary drivers, spokesman Craig Bryson said Thursday, while noting it isn't yet clear whether that would be sufficient or even possible. Tri-party funds are the result of an agreement between the road commission, county and individual municipalities.
RCOC also maintains nearly all state roads in the county on a contract basis for the Michigan Department of Transportation, but MDOT has mandated a slightly lower level of service on some non-freeway state routes for a third year, the commission stated in its news release.
On the impacted routes, which include Rochester Road, the Road Commission is not to clear the roads outside of the regular 7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. weekday shift, except during storms or unless otherwise instructed. In cases such as the storm Sunday night, the commission can work to clear those routes to the point it is "generally bare of ice and snow" in the wheel tracks, then finish clearing the next regular work day.
Adding to this week's problem, staffers said at Thursday's meeting, was that up to 25 percent of the commission's estimated 130-truck fleet was out of commission at times during the storm. "That's not unusual," Kolar said. "It's a rough business."
New trucks cost about $200,000 each, Road Commission Managing Director Brent Bair said. Buying five new trucks, at about $1 million, "wouldn't have made much difference" in this week's storm, Bair added.
Road commissioners hastened to add that, in today's tough budgets, they don't have money for any new trucks.
Despite what Wilson called "heavy media criticism," not everyone was upset with the Commission's storm response.
Officials at Henry Ford Hospital praised road-clearing efforts near its West Bloomfield complex. "You sprang into action to clear Maple Road and I want to compliment you for that," Henry Ford Vice President Marco Cappicchioni told commissioners at Thursday's meeting.
Still, some Oakland Township residents remained concerned about the roadways. "It's a public safety issue," said Sue Poosch, a Lyon Gear & Machine employee. "It's important that they not cut back."
Commissioner Greg Jamian said conditions could have been much worse, pointing to the stranded motorists who lined Highway 402 for 30 hours in nearby Sarnia, Ontario, earlier this week.
"When you battle Mother Nature, you don't always win," Jamian said.
Patch contributor Sarah Wojcik and editor Jen Anesi contributed to this report.