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West Bloomfield

Road Commission, local DPWs begin winter maintenance

December 23, 2013

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The winter storm Dec. 14-15 left Bantry Drive covered in snow days after the storm.

WEST BLOOMFIELD — The Road Commission for Oakland County and local public works departments were in full force during the snowstorm Dec. 14-15, performing winter maintenance in the treacherous road conditions for C & G's coverage area.

While the Road Commission maintains all of the public roads in West Bloomfield Township — as well as the main roads in Orchard Lake, Sylvan Lake and Keego Harbor — the DPWs of the three cities are in charge of all side streets and subdivisions.

Throughout Oakland County, the Road Commission prioritizes roads when it comes to winter maintenance based on the amount of traffic per lane. Roads like Orchard Lake Road and Middlebelt are classified as critical, or top priority, as they have at least 10,000 vehicles traveling each lane per day. Other critical roads include freeways and big surface streets, said Craig Bryson, public information officer for the Road Commission. The next priority, he said, is roads that carry 2,500 vehicles per lane per day.

On average, the Road Commission uses about 63,000 tons of salt per year and budgets around $12 million for winter maintenance. Last year, Bryson said, the commission saved approximately $1 million due to the mild winter, which allowed them to purchase 12 additional dump trucks and three additional grader trucks that have large blades for plowing rural roads. The trucks are used year-round.

Contrary to popular belief, when the Road Commission dispatches plows for winter maintenance depends on safety and the slickness of roads. Once salt is dispersed to the roads, a chemical reaction occurs, causing the ice to melt. However, at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, salt begins to lose its effectiveness. Once the temperature drops to 10 degrees Fahrenheit or below, salt is pretty much useless, Bryson said.

“We’ve been able to use liquid brine that lowers the threshold a couple degrees,” Bryson said. “The liquid makes the salt activate more quickly and allows us to use less salt. It is a financial and environmental benefit.”

Bryson explained that the commission has one management person monitoring weather conditions on a weekly basis to determine if snow trucks are required. In addition to watching public forecasting services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s radar, the Road Commission also has its own forecasting services. 

In Sylvan Lake, John Martin, city manager, said that after hours, the Sylvan Lake Police Department determines whether roads require plowing or salt treatment by the DPW. When the Police Department feels road conditions are declining enough that people cannot drive or stop safely, the DPW crew is dispatched.

Sylvan Lake budgets $6,000 to purchase salt and approximately $7,000 for the use of equipment. Martin said the city owns two trucks that have the ability to both plow and salt the streets. Like the Road Commission, the DPW typically attends to the roads during slippery conditions.

“People can drive on snow, but you can’t drive on ice,” Martin said.

While Old Orchard Trail is considered a major road, it is in Orchard Lake’s jurisdiction, said Gerry McCallum, director of city services for Orchard Lake. The city, he said, tackles major roads, as well as intersections during winter road maintenance before working on side streets and subdivisions.

In January 2008, the city put into place a snow removal policy that is broken down into categories of light snowfall, medium snowfall with icing, and heavy snowfall with major icing. Light snowfall is accumulation up to 1 inch of snow on the road surface. During light snowfall, one DPW employee is on duty to lay salt on main roads — Old Orchard Trail and Indian Trail — and intersections.

When medium snowfall or icing occurs, which is the accumulation of 2-4 inches of snow on the road surface or minor ice conditions, one DPW employee salts the main roads, intersections and City Hall access. Once the snowfall is complete, DPW plows all other streets and applies salt as needed.

During heavy snowfall or major icing — the accumulation of 4 inches or more of snow and major ice conditions — one DPW employee is on duty for plowing and applying salt treatment to the main roads, intersections and City Hall access. Once harsh weather conditions diminish and the streets have been cleared, the DPW begins plowing and salting subdivision streets. A second employee is called in if weather conditions have not improved by 3 a.m. or if the subdivision streets have not been plowed or salted.

Orchard Lake breaks its road maintenance budget into two categories: major roads and local roads. For major streets, the city’s budget is about $80,000 for the entire year. For local roads, the city budgets $100,000 for winter  maintenance, which includes the costs of equipment, the DPW trucks and the purchase of salt, McCallum said. The city typically purchases around 500 tons of salt a year, he added. Orchard Lake has one large, 7-yard dump truck and one F-350, 3-yard truck. Both are equipped with salt spreaders.

“Even when we are out in full force, the roads can still be slippery. Caution is the best defense,” Bryson said.

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