Clinton County crews clear drifts of snow on a primary blacktop road south of Fowler. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
Lansing— State and Detroit-area transportation officials are worried a costly battle with snow, ice and potholes resulting from unusually harsh winter weather will leave them little or no money for certain types of summer road maintenance.
Mowing, trash pickup and some routine patching projects could be curtailed, they say, if the amount of snow and ice removal persists at the current pace.
Costs are piling up as the state endures its bitterest cold in 20 years and Metro Detroit experiences its largest snowfall on record for January and the beginning of the winter season. No immediate reprieve is in sight: 3-5 inches of snow are forecast for this weekend in Metro Detroit.
“This year has been unrelenting since before Christmas,” said Macomb County Department of Roads Director Bob Hoepfner, who faced an overtime pay tally of at least $171,000 through Jan. 17 for plowing, salting and sanding crews working almost around the clock.
Continuing snow “has road agencies from southern Michigan to the Keweenaw Peninsula rapidly spending their maintenance budgets,” added County Road Association of Michigan Director Denise Donohue.
“When the counties’ maintenance funds are depleted in winter, they simply aren’t available for badly needed road preservation and maintenance projects in the summer,” she warned.
At winter’s midpoint, road agencies have felt the following effects:
■The Michigan Department of Transportation estimates it will spend $104 million to $117 million this winter, compared with a little more than $100 million last winter and $65.5 million for the 2011-12 winter. Spending to remove ice and snow from state routes could go as much as $40 million over budget, the state director says.
■Macomb County’s road department has used up 80 percent of its $3.9 million cold weather road maintenance budget with half of the winter left.
■The city of Eastpointe is about $43,000 over budget on salt use, according to its development and public services director.
■Wayne County has spent 85 percent or $7 million of its normal $8.2 million in winter maintenance costs and gone through 86 percent of its typical road salt use, said Deputy Chief Operating Officer Cindy Dingell.
State Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said that without a break in the weather, MDOT could be forced to reduce such summer tasks as mowing and trash removal along highways, leaving less-than-ideal vistas for visitors lured here by the highly successful Pure Michigan ad campaign.
“You don’t do anything,” he said. “You just do emergency responses on things that are absolutely, absolutely essential.”
Steudle said the state road department bases its winter snowplowing and salting budget on a five-year average of snowfall, but predicting the weather is just guesswork done months ahead of time.
“(In) the prior years, it had gone down, down, down, and last year it spiked way up and then this year it’s going to spike up again,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to try to budget on a year-by-year basis.”
But when some local officials take a longer-range view of spending on snow removal, they aren’t as concerned about dealing with this year’s spike.
Even though Pleasant Ridge has plowed through nearly three-fourths of its $73,000 snow removal budget — compared with last year’s $52,000 budget — there is a contingency plan should the city use up its remaining maintenance budget, said Assistant City Manager Scott Pietrzak.
“We do have some fund balances in the account because we didn’t use all the funds budgeted last year,” said Pietrzak, whose city contracts with the Oakland County road agency and Oak Park company Brilar for plowing.
Even though Eastpointe’s dozen trucks have spread 2,000 tons of salt after budgeting for 1,400 tons and drivers have turned in 1,000 hours of overtime, the hope is expenses will be manageable, said Mary Van Haaren, city director of development, public works and services.
“We have to look at more than one snow season,” Van Haaren said. “Last year and the year before, it was not nearly as much. When you average over time, it is relatively within budget.”
Warren officials are similarly confident about their situation, despite having 365 miles of subdivision streets and admitting they have been challenged to stay within budget.
Michigan’s third-largest city has used $32,000 of the $125,000 it budgeted for snowplowing overtime pay and is in pretty good shape in that respect, said Deputy Public Service Director Gus Ghanam. But it already has used 8,300 tons of salt, up from 7,900 tons last year.
Still, the heavy winter’s financial strain has transportation officials renewing their pleas for more money.
“Despite the fact that these were historic storms, we were certainly taxed beyond our capacity,” said Oakland County Road Commission spokesman Craig Bryson.
While the county is compiling cost figures, it expects to exceed its $12 million winter maintenance budget without a stretch of milder weather, Bryson said. The road agency hasn’t bought a new truck since 2007 and the vehicles had numerous breakdowns when they ran around the clock during recent storms, he said. Staffing has dropped to 357, compared with 556 in 2007, and is at its lowest level since the 1950s, Bryson added.
The County Road Association of Michigan has been urging lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder to use part of a projected $971 million surplus on road repairs this year. Most county road agencies have seen significant funding and staff reductions during the past decade, the association says.
Snyder wants to spend as much as $1.4 billion more annually on state roads and bridges alone, but concedes it’s unlikely with the Republican legislative majority unwilling to enact the necessary tax increases in an election year.
Detroit News Staff Writers Ursula Watson and Lauren Abdel-Razzaq contributed.