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Road commission addresses county concerns

MARQUETTE — In the Upper Peninsula, it’s not uncommon to receive the first snowfall of the season some time in late November. But every few years, an especially unusual storm sweeps through, leaving hazardous road conditions in its wake.

A significant storm of this type hit just a day before Thanksgiving this year, with a similar one taking place just two days later.

Following the storms, multiple Marquette County commissioners received complaints from constituents in regards to the state of the roads.

“People made comments that there wasn’t enough people plowing the roads, they didn’t do it quick enough, they had trouble around the new roundabouts and they were not getting the inside lane of the roundabout,” Commissioner Bill Nordeen said.

Nordeen suggested the Marquette County Road Commission look into the possibility of calling employees who may be out on vacation for deer hunting season or the holidays back into work to take care of the roads if an unexpected storm hits.

“Really, what needs to happen — and this is what I suggested to (Marquette County Road Commission Engineer Manager) Jim Iwanicki — why don’t we be ready for this so that you can recall people if they’re on vacation and say: ‘You know what, we have an emergency. You need to come in and plow the roads.’ He agreed with that,” Nordeen said.

Iwanicki, in an interview with the Journal, stated that road commission employees are aware — even when on vacation — they must call in and see if they are needed if there is a storm in the forecast.

“It wasn’t an issue of people sitting in the woods not coming to work, it was an issue of function,” Iwanicki said.

He said the road commission currently staffs 54 full-time employees — around 50 fewer than in 2003 due to funding reductions — and hires around 20 part-time employees to help as needed during the winter months.

By the time the November storms this year hit, all of the part-time employees were on board.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t have people. It was, again, the snow was significant. And we were making choices. Some things were getting put further behind, so we could do our best on those most traveled roads,” Iwanicki said. “We had supervisors in plows, we had foremen in plows, because it was that type of an event.”

In the event of a storm, the road commission’s goal is to have a plow truck pass by every residence in the area within 24 hours, he said.

“Obviously, when it is snowing really hard and we have to go back and redo some areas, then we need to compromise on those lesser-traveled roads,” Iwanicki said. “This one we had lots of ice, so we had power lines down. When there’s a power line down we can’t go in that area. Trees were down, we had engineering department employees cutting trees so that we could keep more of our drivers in plows … We brought to bear as much work force as we possibly could to do the best for the traveling public.”

However, Nordeen noted many of the residents who called with concerns about the state of the roads specifically mentioned the route from Marquette to Ishpeming as a problem area.

“The five people I heard from all talked about the west end, they all talked about Ishpeming and whatnot. I think there was a problem up that way, which is interesting because that’s where the road commission is,” Nordeen said.

That portion of U.S. 41 is considered a high-traffic area and is a priority for the road commission, Iwanicki said.

Typically, three to five plows visit that area multiple times a day if a snowstorm is in progress, traveling from the Second Street roundabout in Ishpeming to the intersection of U.S. 41 and Cherry Creek Road in Harvey.

“When we bring those three to five plows again to bear again, there’s something on the side roads that might not get done,” Iwanicki said

Iwanicki believes the frequent complaints on the west end roads are partially due to the typical rate of travel in that area.

“People’s expectations is that they can go 55-plus (mph) between Marquette and Ishpeming. That’s not a safe and realistic expectation during those snow storms,” he said

The condition of the many Marquette roundabouts were also a concern for residents, as most had just one lane of travel available.

The curbs of roundabouts are usually marked with reflective signs by the road commission as to not be caught by the plows, but the late construction season and early snowfall hindered the commission from marking them, Iwanicki said.

“We ended up damaging two snow plows because of not knowing where things were out there,” he said.

The road commission is currently working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to rectify the roundabout issues, he added.

While hiring more staff seems to be the simple solution, Iwanicki said, the road commission is funded by gas and license plate fees — not property taxes — and hasn’t seen a significant enough increase in its budget in the last few years that would allow an increase in staffing.

Keeping the roads free of snow and county residents free of concerns is what Iwanicki calls a balancing act.

“If it’s important, make it important. And if there is additional funds that need to be brought to bear, if the public says: ‘Hey, we would want to sacrifice summer road conditions for a lot better service in the winter,’ that’s something we can do, but right now we’re trying to balance this and this is where we’re at with it,” he said.

If the weather has caused hazardous road conditions, Iwanicki reminds area residents: “Whether it’s wet, heavy or any snow, be patient. Not only with us, but with yourself. Drive appropriately for the conditions out there. It’s better to be five minutes late than to be sitting in a hospital room. Nothing is that important that you have to go that fast.”

County officials said that if anyone has road-related concerns, they should first contact the Marquette County Road Commission at 906-486-4491.

“If people have a problem they should call the road commission,” Nordeen said. “If they don’t get a good answer from them then they should call the road commissioners, the board. And if they don’t get a good answer from them they can certainly call (the Marquette County Board of Commissioners) because ultimately we’re in charge of the health, safety and welfare of the county as a whole. So we have some interest there, but that’s the way it should go. It shouldn’t start with us, it should end with us.”

Visit the Marquette County website at www.co.marquette.mi.us/ to find contact information for Marquette County commissioners.

Trinity Carey can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is tcarey@miningjournal.net.