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Adding up: What this winter weather amounts to

Published 10:00am Monday, January 11, 2010

By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star

Snow looks pretty when it falls from the sky and clings to the branches of so many trees, but the fact is, snow is also a hassle. It clutters roads and driveways, walkways and highways and coupled with ice, it’s slippery, slick and even deadly.

While residents are hard at work keeping their homes free of the white stuff that can pile up quickly and cause vehicles to get stuck on the way to work in the morning, road crews are hard at work, at all hours of the day and night doing their best keeping highways and roadways clear.

“Our plows are out when it’s snowing. We’re out trying to stay ahead of the weather as best we can,” Nick Schirripa, representative of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) southwest Michigan regional office said.

In addition to standard plowing, Schirripa said crews are out administering an anti-icing agent on state highways and state roads to help break down any potential build up of snow or ice.

That anti-icing agent “buys us a couple of hours” when snow is falling fast and heavy, he said.

So as inches are counted and snow gets pushed and pulled out of the way of residents – just how much does this wintery weather cost?

In the southwest region, including nine surrounding counties that cost is an estimated $34 million.

That is how much of a maintenance budget MDOT is allotted for the region through during the current fiscal year, from Oct. 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2010, a number that Schirripa said stays relatively steady from year to year.

That’s $34 million made possible by taxpayers, federal dollars and matched funds.
State Rep. John Proos, who sits on the state’s appropriations committee said a small portion of the sales tax on fuel and the Motor Fuels Tax go directly to providing funding for road maintenance.

“The majority of the funding goes to our county road associations” and regional state transportation like the regional MDOT operations,” Proos said.

“Budgets are tight,” Schirripa said. But he added that officials “don’t really cross those lines” in going over budget.

“We do our best to try and stay up with the state roads,” he said. It’s a job that keeps workers busy all winter, come snow, ice and even when the skies clear.

“Even when it’s not snowing we’re still plowing because there’s stuff to plow,” Schirripa said.

Because the state is smack in the middle of the winter season, there’s no reading on just how much of that budget has been used up already. But there is an idea as to where the funds are going.

In addition to making sure crews get paid and state operated vehicles are up to the job, there’s the matter of salt.

At $60 per ton, salt might not sound like it amounts to much for the region. But Schirripa said that price per ton of road salt is up 22 percent from 2009, 24 percent from prices in 2008.

The costs are up 100 percent from just five years ago in 2005.

It’s just one reason in addition to a multitude of other budget cuts that road crews in cities and towns large and small are feeling an extra financial pinch this season.

They can’t salt at 20 degrees, because it becomes ineffective and turns snow into ice.
“It’s too cold,” Schirripa said.

MDOT is responsible for 3,000 lane miles in the southwest region – lane miles meaning one mile to each lane. One mile of Interstate 94 that includes four lanes would amount to four lane miles.

In 2009, 63,000 tons of salt was used to keep state roads clear along with 7,000 tons of sand.

Obviously, the amount of money and resources used to manage winter weather depends on one very integral element: Mother Nature.

“It really does depend on the weather even at a very local level,” Schirripa said.

But southwest Michigan does have a bit of an advantage. Proos said the area benefits from the Port of St. Joseph, which makes transporting salt to county and state road associations more efficient and thereby more economical.

The port, he said, “is what helps to decrease the overall costs” in transporting the road salt for “road construction, road maintenance and salt and sanding.”

Instead of trucking in salt by limited amounts, damaging roads in some cases, Proos said, “we instead bring in tens of thousands of tons at a time.

“That’s just one more component of what makes our road system work in southwest Michigan,” he said.

When heavy storms hit the area, it “absolutely” affects the overall budget, Schirripa said. “Because no matter how much it costs, we still need to use relatively the same amount.”
And no matter how much it costs, Michigan residents still need a safe way to travel.
“This is what we live for,” Schirripa said. “Our garages, our maintenance crews are geared up and ready to go. This is what they do. As long as there’s snow falling, as long as there’s snow on the roads, our plow drivers are out. Even if that means 24/7. But it’s what we do.”

And despite the cost, many would say, at least someone is doing it.

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