Roads, salt budget ravaged by winter weather

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In the grips of one of the roughest winters in decades, Ingham County is facing a new problem- its dwindling winter road maintenance budget.

10,000 tons of salt have been used so far this winter, compared to about 1,500 in 2013. With only 20 percent of the budget remaining, the road department is facing a problem: if more funds are needed, where will they come from?

“If we exceed our allocated salt budget, then we have to divert funds allocated for other uses, such as road repair,” said Rahman Shareef, public relations coordinator for the department.

The department has employed methods to reduce salt use, such as using less salt in low traffic areas and mixing the salt with sand to conserve the supply. According to Shareef, public safety is the first priority.

“It’s critical to provide the safest road conditions we possibly can with the budget we have,” he said.

The winter maintenance budget for Ingham County, which includes the city of Lansing and Lansing Township, is set by the county’s Board of Commissioners. They approve the budget based on recommendations from the Department of Transportation and Roads as well as other county staff.

“The road budget is important,” said Victor Calentino, chairperson of the board and the Commissioner for Lansing Township. “My constituents in Lansing Township rely on our road department for plowing, road resurface projects and salting.”

The winter maintenance budget is generally set at $500,000. About $400,000 of it has been used so far this winter, compared to a mere $150,000 at this time last year .

“We set a budget regarding salt, staff overtime and vehicle maintenance based on winters we’ve had in previous years,” said Shareef. “This winter being so far from the norm has really made it a difficult year for us.”

The budget is supposed to last the county through the rest of the season and cover the beginning of next winter. With a recent coating of snow and a temperature drop expected for the weekend, however, the weather does not seem to be letting up anytime soon.

Overtime

Employee pay and vehicle maintenance have also taken their toll on the budget.

“We’ve had a lot of overtime this year,” said snowplow driver Michael Davis.

The county employs 39 trucks to cover its 1,253 miles of roads. With their additional use this season, maintenance costs have risen. They are occasionally used to break up thick layers of ice as well as distribute salt and remove snow from roads.

“When temperatures drop to these frigid levels, we have to break up ice with out plow truck blades, because salt loses its effectiveness,” said Shareef.

“It is much easier to salt the roads,” said Davis. “When we have to employ these other methods, it takes more time, and it is rougher on the trucks.”

A future problem

With potential storms still looming, money may have to be taken from other road budgets to cover salting and plowing roads. According to Shareef, this could mean that funds would be taken away from the fixing of potholes and other problems.

“To save sufficient budget for November and December 2014, we may need to reduce our surface maintenance program by about $200,000,” said Shareef.

The winter weather has taken a large toll on road surfaces as well, however, with large potholes a common sight on many Ingham County roads. If the budget is cut any further, these repairs may not be covered.

“We were already on a reduced budget from a lack of surface road funding,” said Shareef. “The legislature is currently deciding on possible extra funding for road agencies to offset extra winter expenses, but the amount is not yet known.”

This supplemental budget, which is still being debated in Michigan’s legislature, would add millions of dollars to the road budget to counter dwindling salt supplies and repair needs. Representatives are at odds, however, as to how this should be done.

“We will just have to wait and see,” said Davis.

By Brooke Kansier

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