MARQUETTE - While some snow removal agencies across the state are struggling with their winter budgets, local road crews are faring better - at least so far.
Across Michigan, conditions have varied this winter from ice storms downstate to persistent sub-zero temperatures locally to blizzards at the Mackinac Straits to heavy lake effect snowfalls along the Lake Superior shoreline.
"There's no question that our county road workers will get the roads clear - even plowing them multiple times a day as the wind blows snow right back into roadways," said Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan, which represents the state's 83 county road commissions. "But at the same time, this hard winter has road agencies from southern Michigan to the Keweenaw Peninsula rapidly spending their maintenance budgets."
A city of Marquette plow truck cleans up the side of the road of loose snow Saturday on Jackson Street in south Marquette. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
An Alger County Road Commission crewman worked to clear snowbanks from along M-28 near AuTrain last week as part of snow removal efforts following a few days of new snowfall. (Alger County Road Commission photo)
A city of Marquette Department of Public Works crew knocks down the large snowbanks along a south Marquette street Saturday morning. Area road maintenance officials said they have been holding their own against a cold, snowy winter, but worry about how long the wintry conditions will continue. (Liz Schneider photo)
The association said with at least six weeks left in the season, and likely more in the Upper Peninsula, this will be remembered as an expensive winter for roads.
At the Marquette County Road Commission, the cold temperatures, which affect how roads can be treated for ice and snow, have been more of a problem than the amount of snow.
At the National Weather Service Office in Negaunee Township, snowfall was tracking for this winter 9.2 inches below average as of Saturday. A total of 108.7 inches of snow had fallen there for the season, compared to an average of 117.9.
"It's turning out to be a normal or maybe above normal winter at this time," Marquette County Road Commission Engineer-Manager James Iwanicki said. "Right now, we're comfortable with what we've budgeted for winter."
However, Iwanicki cautions that things "can turn very quickly on us."
He said the past three winters have been milder, lowering materials and overtime costs.
"Winter is our No. 1 priority here for the road commission," Iwanicki said.
If the winter turns out to be expensive for road agencies, there will be less funding available for summertime road projects.
In Alger County, road commission officials are also experiencing nearly average snowfall this winter.
As of Jan. 25, 141 inches of snow had fallen in Munising, 138 inches in Chatham and 162 inches in Grand Marias.
"The record-breaking cold, however, is preventing the snow from settling and compacting," Alger County Road Commission Engineer-Manager Robert Lindbeck said. "We are running out of room to put the snow at intersections and banks are becoming quite high along our roadways."
Lindbeck said the Alger road crews have large loader-mounted snowblowers at each of the county's three maintenance garages. In a typical winter, they are needed in key areas around mid-February. This winter, crews were already using the blowers Wednesday.
Iwanicki said the cold temperatures have been the main concern, making it challenging to battle ice and snow on the roadways.
Lindbeck said road crews are using more sand than salt.
"Salt is relatively ineffective when temperatures fall below 10 degrees and the record cold temperatures are mandating the use of winter sand," Lindbeck said.
So far this winter, Alger County has used 6,496 tons of salt, compared to 15,648 tons used over the entirety of last winter. The county has used 2,124 cubic yards of screened sand on state highways and county roads this winter, compared to 2,133 cubic yards over all of last winter.
"With no end in sight for the cold weather, we will soon surpass last year's entire amount of sand," Lindbeck said.
Scott Cambensy, superintendent of public works for the city of Marquette, said the last few winters have produced higher sand and salt costs for the city.
"Right now, we're about two-thirds of the way through our salt supply for the year," Cambensy said.
Cambensy said how soon the winter begins is just as important as how long it lasts. This winter, city crews were using sand and salt by late October, according to Cambensy.
The cold is also causing problems in other ways.
The association predicts the upcoming pothole season is expected to be severe as deep frost comes out of the ground.
Cambensy said there have been six to eight water pipe breaks so far this winter, which is not out of the ordinary. However, a higher than typical number of water pipe freeze ups has been occurring, with about 50 logged in the city so far.
The association has been urging the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder to increase funding for Michigan roads, including directing some of the money from a $1 billion surplus this year to roads, while developing a more permanent funding solution.
Collectively, the state's road commissions maintain more than 90,000 miles of local roads. The Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council has rated only 20 percent of those local roads as "good" and more than 50 percent were rated "poor."
Michigan has the fourth-largest local road system in the country.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is email@example.com