Winter may be three months away, by the calendar anyway, but Copper Country county road commission crews are getting ready for the onslaught of snow and ice, despite continued reductions in state revenue.
Gregg Patrick, Keweenaw County Road Commission engineer, said road commissions are funded monthly by the Michigan Transportation Fund from gasoline sales revenue, and although he doesn't know what that will be each month, he's certain it won't be exactly what he needs.
"We'll see a reduction," he said. "We have an idea roughly (of what we'll get)."
Kurt Hauglie/Daily Mining Gazette
Houghton County Road Commission employee Paul Jukuri washes trucks at the road commission’s M-26 location east of Hancock Tuesday. Road Commission employees in Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties are planning for winter road maintenance while facing reductions in state revenues.
The MTF fluctuates, Patrick said, because as gasoline prices rise, drivers in the state reduce the amount of driving they do and consequently the amount of gasoline they buy.
Patrick said Keweenaw County uses sand on its roads, but they usually haven't used salt until now.
"This year will be the first time Keweenaw County has bought salt in a long time," he said.
Salt will be mixed with sand piles to keep them from freezing, Patrick said.
The state of Michigan supplies salt for the state trunklines the Keweenaw County Road Commission maintains, he said.
Another serious consequence of the drop in MTF funds, Patrick said, is the department's equipment is older than he would like it to be.
"Our fleet is probably aging more rapidly," he said.
He would like to retire vehicles when they get to be 4 or 5 years old, Patrick said, but he's holding on to them until they're 10 years old or older. The newest vehicle the department has is 4 years old.
"These (vehicles) are approaching well over 100,000 miles," he said.
Patrick said the road commission is doing well as far as sand is concerned.
"We're about half full from leftover sand from last year," he said.
Because of relatively mild winters the last two years, Patrick said the department has about 2,000 of the 4,000 yards of sand needed for the coming winter.
Although overtime is occasionally needed for the road commission's 21 employees, five of whom are seasonal, Patrick said it's used only when absolutely necessary.
"We try to reduce it as much as we can," he said.
Road commission workers maintain 240 miles of roads in the winter, but as a cost-cutting measure, it may be not all roads will be plowed if there's just a light snowfall.
Patrick said most Keweenaw County residents realize the financial constraints the road commission is facing.
Because of that, they understand there may be limits on plowing during the winter.
In Baraga County, road commission Engineer Douglass Mills said the situation there is pretty much the same Patrick faces with a severe drop in revenues.
"We're on a 10-year downward trend," he said.
Mills said the 22 vehicles the road commission uses for winter plowing are older than he'd like them to be.
"Our trucks are running well beyond what we'd like to keep," he said.
The trucks are 12 to 13 years old, with the last upgrade in 1997, Mills said.
"That's the majority of our fleet," he said.
There are 500 miles of roads in Baraga County, But Mills said not all of them are plowed in the winter.
"We've eliminated a couple plow routes," he said.
The road commission's 18 employees are flexible about their hours, Mills said, and that helps to keep overtime low during the winter.
"We're down the last couple years," he said.
Although sand is being stockpiled now, and salt hasn't come in, yet, Mills said that isn't a big issue in Baraga County.
"We don't use a significant amount of sand and salt," he said.
The Baraga County Road Commission doesn't maintain state trunklines in the winter, Mills said.
Kevin Harju, Houghton County Road Commission engineer, said that department is operating at the same funding levels it had in 2002.
Because of the decline in funding, Harju said maintaining the department's vehicles is a challenge.
"We're really starting to have issues," he said.
The last time a new vehicle was bought for the department was in 2004, Harju said. The oldest vehicle the department still uses regularly has a frame from the 1940s and a body from the 1950s.
Last winter, Harju said it cost $1.7 million to remove snow, up $150,000 from the previous year.
Harju said the department has its own sand pit at Point Mills, so there's a cost savings there, but the cost to pay to have it hauled from the pit to the main department location on M-26 east of Hancock is rising because of the increase in fuel prices.
Although the department buys salt to mix with the road sand, Harju said it doesn't need salt for roads because it doesn't maintain state trunklines. Of the county's 850 miles of roads, 750 miles are plowed in the winter.
Harju said in the last five years, the workforce of the department is down 20 percent, due mainly to attrition.
There are 39 regular employees in the department and five seasonal employees during the winter, and as with the other county road commissions, overtime is an issue.
"We'll definitely be watching overtime and keep it as low as possible," he said.
Michael Maloney, Ontonagon County Road Commission engineer, said the drop in state revenue is making it difficult to get spare parts for the department's 50 vehicles.
"Equipment is always a question mark," he said. "It's difficult to maintain an older fleet."
However, Maloney said the department has been able to get some new trucks recently.
"We have two new trucks on order, and we had two new trucks last year," he said.
That's still below the six new trucks per year the department was able to get 20 years ago, Maloney said.
"We're behind the 8-ball," he said. "It's going to catch up with us."
Maloney said the department has its own sand pit, and the state provides salt for the 160 miles of state trunklines it plows.
The Ontonagon County Road Commission has 30 regular employees and 14 to 16 seasonal employees in winter.
Maloney said an effort is made to minimize overtime, but sometimes it is necessary.
"In reality, we're here to plow snow," he said.
Fuel prices are a serious issue for him, also, Maloney said.
One month last winter, he said, the Ontonagon County Road Commission spent $100,000 for fuel.
"That's scary," he said.