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Winter woes strand residents

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January 30, 2013 - Icy conditions wreaked havoc on gravel roads this week, cancelling school in both the Brandon and Goodrich districts, stranding residents at their homes, and causing numerous vehicles to run off the road, as well as a few accidents.

In an incident that proved just how treacherous the roads were, a driver for the Road Commission for Oakland County lost control of his vehicle in the 1600 block of Inner Drive in Brandon Township after being sent there to make the road navigable for stuck residents. The road remained impassable, by both ice and the truck, until a large grader cleared both at about 7:45 p.m., Jan. 29.

The problems began Sunday night, said Craig Bryson, RCOC public information officer, when snow fell, followed by freezing rain, then 50-degree temperatures and more rain. With the ground still frozen and insulated with snow, the ice remained despite the warming trend.

"This is the nature of gravel roads, it's not a stable surface," said Bryson. "People choose to live on gravel roads for a variety of reasons, but part of living on gravel roads is living in a situation where they road is unstable by definition. We sympathize with those who have to go to work and have to drive. We wish there was something we could do to make those roads instantly better, but there isn't."

There are only two remedies the RCOC can use to address ice on gravel roads—scraping the road with a grader, or laying down sand. Bryson said both present their own problems. The RCOC has in its possession 19 graders, many of which are aging and fraught with their own repair issues. With 775 miles of gravel roads in Oakland County, grading is a time-consuming process.

"We get to the roads as quickly as we can, but that's a lot of roads per grader," Bryson said. "We also put sand down, but we can't sand all of the roads. We are putting sand on curves, hills, and areas by stop signs, as well as some of the straight-aways. But the problem with rain is that it washes away the sand."

Salt is not generally used on gravel roads because it burrows into the road and creates pinholes instead of spreading across the surface.

Bryson said the only true solution is the grading, and the RCOC's graders are breaking down and are past the point of fixing with more and more serious repairs.

"Next winter will be worse and the year after that worse," said Bryson, who supports a plan by Gov. Rick Snyder to raise gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to provide additional funding for roads. "We have less staff than we did in 1960, when Oakland County had only half the population and traffic it now does."

As of Wednesday, the roads appeared to be finally safe for travel, with students back to school and residents back to work and able to run errands.

Sara Schultz, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in White Lake Township, said temperatures are expected to be in the lower 30s this week, with temperatures for February to be slightly below normal. The average high for February is 33 degrees. The average February snowfall in the Flint area is about 10 inches.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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