Metro area may save on 2015-16 winter road maintenance

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

So far this year, winter in Michigan has been more of a whimper and not much of a bang.

Between Dec. 1 and Monday, Metro Detroit has seen a total of about 14 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. In the corresponding period last year, it was socked with more than 38 inches. Normally, the area has had to shovel out from more than 27 inches of snow in those same 10 weeks of winter each year.

Because of El Niño, the weather service is predicting above normal temperatures and below median precipitation through April.

And since there hasn’t been a ton of the white stuff, Metro Detroit’s county road departments may save some green, but it’s too early to tell, officials said.

Diane Cross, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the agency can’t say whether it’s saved any money on snow removal this year because it determines its maintenance budget on a five-year average.

“The funding we are using this winter was determined by the last five winters, including the last two extreme ones,” she said.

Cross also explained the department divides maintenance into two categories: winter work and non-winter work.

“With the light winter we’ve had, it has allowed us to do more ‘non-winter’ work — pothole filing, culvert repair, catch basin cleaning, guardrail repair, lighting issues, traffic signal repair, sign repairs, etc.,” she said. “And it ill also allow us to begin spring maintenance earlier, if the weather stays like it has been.

“There isn’t so much a ‘savings’ as much as allowing us to use the funding for more non-winter maintenance.”

She also said this year’s lighter winter will likely mean MDOT will adjust its maintenance budget when it rolls it into its future planning.

Leo Ciavatta, the Macomb County Department of Roads’ maintenance superintendent, said his department expects to save some money.

“It looks like we’re saving some money, but it’s premature to say,” he said. “We could still get walloped.”

He said the department, which is responsible for maintaining 1,800 miles of primary roadways and about 1,000 miles of subdivision streets across Macomb County, uses about 50,000 tons of rock salt in an average winter.

At about $60 per ton, it spends about $3 million on salt. As of a couple of weeks ago, it used about 22,000 tons this season and has about $1.7 million worth of salt left, Ciavatta said.

He also added the department likely is saving some money on snow plow crews’ overtime as well as on the amount of wear and tear on snow equipment. However, if there are any savings, the department won’t likely have a total dollar amount until May, Ciavatta said.

“We anticipate we’ll save some money, but you never really can’t tell until winter is completely over,” he said. “We could get a couple of storms that could just work us around the clock.”

Macomb’s larger neighbor to the west, Oakland County, is also predicting some savings on winter snow removal this season but won’t calculate how much it spent until the end of the season.

“It can change in a heartbeat,” said Craig Bryson, a spokesman for the Road Commission for Oakland County, which is responsible for maintaining more than 2,700 miles of road in Oakland County.

Oakland County’s road commission typically spends about $12 million on winter road maintenance and uses an average of 64,000 tons of rock salt. This year, the county paid about $58 per ton. A ton of rock salt cost it about $50 last year, he said.

However, Bryson said the agency hasn’t seen much savings on rock salt this year.

“Even though November and December were very mild and we didn’t salt very much, we were out almost every single day salting in January,” he said. “We’re now right at about the average for salt use at this time of the winter.”

But overtime for snow plowing is noticeably lower than last year, Bryson said.

“Theoretically, if things remain the same, we could come out ahead on the overtime budget,” he said. “But we can’t assume that yet.”

Like Macomb and Oakland, the Roads Division of the Wayne County Department of Public Works can’t say definitively it’s saved money on snow removal this season.

“Winter’s not over yet, so we can’t say we’ve experienced any savings,” said Wayne County spokeswoman Tiffani Jackson.

But the county has used less salt on its roads this year, she said. Wayne County can buy as much as 90,000 tons of rock salt for its winter efforts. Through Feb. 6, it used about 29,000 tons this season, Jackson said. That compares with about 55,000 tons last year. Depending on which of two vendors the county bought the salt from, a ton of salt cost it $54-$56 this year.

She also said overtime for snow plowing is down this winter. So far this season, Jackson said, there were only 12 occasions the roads division had to call workers in on overtime. Last year, there were 20.

“That’s where we’re seeing the biggest difference so far this year,” she said.

(313) 222-2058