LANSING — With predictions of a mild winter ahead, some county road commissions anticipate that savings on fuel and road salt will funnel into spring road projects such as pothole repair.
According to National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration predictions for December through February, Michigan’s winter has a greater than 50 percent chance of above-average temperatures and a 40 percent chance to be less snowy than average.
In the meantime, a delayed start to colder temperatures and snowfall is giving the commissions a chance to “catch their breath” from the workloads of past winters and catch up on road maintenance, said Dirk Heckman, the manager and engineer at the Mackinac County Road Commission.
Projects include brush removal, drainage ditch clearing and rebuilding road shoulders, Heckman said.
“We had not been able to do this in the previous fall and early winter months,” Heckman said.
Dan Wagner, managing director at the Leelanau County Road Commission, said the difference between this time last year and now in terms of snowfall and road salt use is like “night and day.”
“This is probably one of the best months we’ve had for the month of December in recent history,” he said.
Wagner predicts an excess of road salt, and with the slow start to the winter, he’s already having trouble storing it all. But it’s not a problem he’s fretting over, he said, as short-term savings on fuel and long-term savings on road salt will help fund road projects.
Although a mild winter is predicted, many county road commissions lock in a price and quantity of road salt far before the first flakes fall, said Ed Noyola, the deputy director of the County Road Association of Michigan.
Noyola contrasted Leelanau County’s salt surplus with what many road commissions faced last year: severe shortages.
“Some of them were scrambling to find salt from somewhere or they were throwing down sand in some cases because they couldn’t find salt or couldn’t afford it,” Noyola said.
Noyola said just because temperatures and snowfall have been below average so far doesn’t mean an easy winter. He said commission staffs statewide are patiently waiting to see how the winter plays out before counting any savings and planning projects and purchases.
“I haven’t seen the winter start this late in quite a while — probably the late 1980s,” Noyola said. “But we’re still going to be cautious on how we’re going to plan our summer projects.”
But even if the winter is mild, motorists shouldn’t anticipate grand-scale road projects to result from the savings, Noyola said.
“I don’t think those savings will generate enough to start big reconstruction projects,” he said. “Just more pavement preservation type work that will extend the life of the pavement by two to five years.”
— MICHAEL KRANSZ