Salt supply, road budgets hit hard by heavy snow

Warmup has West Michigan road commissions eyeing potholes


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As West Michigan emerges from a long stretch of brutal cold and heavy snow, county road commission crews are trying to catch their breath before the next wave of wintry weather.

The past few weeks have taken a major toll on resources. In December alone, Ottawa County Road Commission plow drivers worked 2,700 hours of overtime.

“For this time of year, that’s quite a bit,” communications administrator Zach Russell told 24 Hour News 8 Monday. “We had people out on Christmas and on New Year’s. With all those days right in a row, we had to have them working overnight.”

The harsh blast of winter weather impacted not only manpower, but also what crews use to clear the roads.

Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties have already used approximately 50 percent of their winter salt supply.

“It definitely means that we’ve had a hard winter so far,” Russell said.

Map: The amount of road salt used so far this winter by four West Michigan counties.

Allegan County has used about 30 percent of its salt. It’s worth noting that Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties all contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation to clear state roads, while MDOT crews clear state roads in Allegan County.

The increased need for manpower and salt has impacted budgets. The director of the Muskegon County Road Commission told 24 Hour News 8 his agency has already spent 50 percent of its winter maintenance budget. Ideally, it would have spent about 30 percent at this point in the season.

Kent County Road Commission managing director Jerry Byrne said he tends to ignore the calendar year when assessing resources. He said the amount of salt used — albeit significant — aligns with the snowfall the county has received, which is a little more half than the annual average.

“Are we a little concerned because we’re starting into January and we’ve already used half and we probably have two and a months of winter (left)? Well, maybe. But if we use the average snowfall — maybe it’s going to peter out and we’ll be at 76 inches (the annual average) and it’ll all work out,” Byrne said. “That’s the hope.”

A couple of factors have actually helped the salt supply. During last year’s weak winter, many road commissions were left with a surplus. This year, some days have been so cold that crews added more sand to their mix because salt is not as effective in frigid temperatures.

While they wait for the next blast of winter weather, road crews won’t be taking a break. Their concern during this week’s warmup now shifts to potholes.

“Fifty (degrees) and rain on Thursday concerns us, because instead of these men and women out putting down sand and salt, there are going to be dozens of crews filling potholes when it’s 50 and raining,” Byrne said.

Byrne’s advice when dealing with potholes is to avoid driving through puddles. He said it’s impossible to tell what’s underwater and that puddles often cover large holes in the road.

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