January 15, 2014 - Craig Bryson is used to hearing complaints.
RCOC Snow plows on I-75 in Oakland County (click for larger version)
The public information officer for the Road Commission for Oakland County got even more than usual following the Jan. 5 snowstorm that dumped from 10-16 inches across the county, causing numerous accidents and making roads treacherous and even impassable, some for days. The two largest complaints the RCOC received were regarding subdivision streets and back roads in the northern sections of the county.
"We did everything we could to get in there as fast as possible," said Bryson. "They literally could not get out until we got there."
He acknowledged that residents have to get to work and school, but with roughly 1,000 miles of these types of roads in the county, it took RCOC four to five days to finish plowing. The first roads plowed are the highest traveled roads and highest speeds- roads that carry 10,000 vehicles per lane per day, including freeways, and the largest surface streets—Telegraph, Big Beaver, Woodward, Orchard Lake Road, and Southfield Road. The next tier, are priority one roads, with 2,500 vehicles per lane, per day. The subdivision and back roads are bottom tier. There are 2,700 miles of county roads and 230 miles of state trunklines (I-75, I-696, M-59, and M-15).
Bryson hopes the residents know the road commission was doing everything they could.
"It was a historic storm, followed by historic temperatures," said Bryson."When you get a massive, historic storm, it just takes time to clean up. We could have had twice as many employees and it still would have taken time to clean up from a storm like this."
He adds that in 16 years with the RCOC, the recent storm was the largest and worst he has seen and was the biggest storm the RCOC could find going back a quarter century. It was taxing on drivers who had just finished cleaning up from a New Year's snowfall of six inches. This, along with the cold that followed the Jan. 6 storm, made it a trifecta, said Bryson.
While a storm of this intensity is enough of a problem on its own, the road commission faced plenty of other daunting challenges— not only have employees been reduced by more than 35 percent since 2007, there weren't enough plow trucks. While the total RCOC fleet is 135 trucks, there is never a time that many are out. At most, there would be 106 trucks on the road, however, during this storm, Bryson said half of them were not operable.
"All the trucks are at least 7-years-old, some as many as 10-years-old— which is ancient by plow truck standards," he said. "They are breaking down continuously, with fewer mechanics to fix them. That's a huge problem."
The RCOC will purchase 12 new trucks this year, due to arrive this spring, but Bryson notes that is just the tip of the iceberg and won't solve the vehicle or fleet problem. Even if the trucks were all in good condition, there wouldn't be enough employees to drive 106 trucks on the second shift. The decrease in staffing means 60-70 full-time employees no longer driving snow plows.
"Where that becomes really evident is long duration events," Bryson said. "We often have to bring in less drivers than we would, because we have to use those same people around the clock for days."
The road commission has begun to hire part-time drivers in the winter to augment full-time employees, as well as contractors to help clean the subdivisions and backroads.
The RCOC currently employs 358 people, down from 556 in 2006. Of those, 130 drive plow trucks as part of the highway maintenance department. The second largest department is engineering, in which employees design roads, appraise property, and inspect projects. Support staff includes computer technicians, and there is another department that handles traffic signals and signs, of which the RCOC maintains 150,000 in the county. Mechanics for the RCOC are also down by half since 2007, and their workload is way up with aging vehicles.
The two main revenue sources for road funding are gax tax and vehicle registration fees. Yearly, the RCOC receives just under $60 million combined from these sources, to cover all costs, including salaries, benefits, equipment, fuel, overhead costs, and facilities. The revenue has been declining for a decade now, bottoming out last year. Today, the RCOC receives less revenue from those sources than they did in 1999, all while costs have increased. Part of the reason is because cars are more fuel-efficient, Bryson added.
While residents wish RCOC had cleared snow faster, he believes they will look back on the job done on this storm with envy if more staff is lost. Bryson said the RCOC is trying to convince the state legislature to not put off road funding any longer. Based on Census Bureau data, Michigan is in the bottom 10 of all states in per-capita road funding.
"We are underfunding our roads compared to other states," he said. "We get what we pay for."
Ohio, he notes, has a gas tax that is 9 cents higher, as well as a turnpike that pays for itself, resulting in $400 million more per year in road revenue than Michigan.
For now, the RCOC is just trying to hold the line on staff.
"We really feel we are at the tipping point," said Bryson. "Our position is that we are not advocating any single fix, because that becomes political. We just want them to do something to raise road funding. The most basic function of government is to provide infrastructure and we are failing at that."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville