Keeping county roads plowed is a big job
This past Wednesday, Freeman Bennett was just starting to feel a little more relaxed about the road conditions throughout Oneida County. As the highway commissioner, it’s his job to make sure all state and county roads are safe for driving and so far this season, that’s been quite a challenge.
“In the 26 years I’ve been working for this department, that last ice storm we got was the worst I’ve seen,” he said. “It really was a challenge making the roads passable after it was over and we’re still working on bringing them up to par.”
Hours of rain and then freezing rain mixed with heavy snow, followed by a polar temperature plunge, made county roads tricky a week ago in an earlier-than-normal start to the winter season. However, the storm did not catch Freeman and his crew off guard. “We were ready as far as sand and salt were concerned,” he said. “Our equipment was also ready to go when this weather hit.”
Keeping Oneida County roads in good winter driving condition is a big job. Freeman heads a crew of 19 men, two mechanics and a handful of part-time snow plow drivers, and is responsible for 364 miles or 728 lane miles of roads that must be kept passable. “We plow every road in Oneida County that’s named by a letter or a number,” he said. “There’s only one road, Hwy. X in Three Lakes, we don’t plow.”
The county is broken into 17 plow routes the crewmen tackle when winter weather hits. There are 19 men who travel these routes every year. Most have many years’ experience driving the big plow trucks throughout the county and they all get extensive training in these rigs before they are allowed to get behind the wheel. “I like to keep the same guy on the same route as much as possible,” said Freeman. “That way, they become familiar with the road, like where rough patches are or where there are shady spots or curves that might need more sand or salt.”
One of the challenges of keeping roads drivable is keeping up with all the new technology that develops every year. A peek inside a plow truck reveals many buttons, gears and even computers that regulate salt and sand distribution. “There’s a lot more to driving a plow truck than just getting behind the wheel these days,” said Freeman. “Most of the trucks we have now have sophisticated computers that regulate how much material is spread on the road during any given storm and depending on conditions.”
Another changing facet of keeping roads safe is all the products that come out every year to melt ice and snow. “If someone invented a substance that could melt ice and snow and not be corrosive, they would be a millionaire,” laughed Freeman.
Right now, the county is experimenting with a substance called Thaw-Rocks, which is 80 percent magnesium chloride (a salt) mixed with 20 percent beet juice. So far, the product seems to be working. “The beet juice has a lower melting point, so it works down to 12 or 14 degrees,” said Freeman. “That can make the difference between a snow-covered road and a clear one.”
Another technique used is injecting salt pellets with a 27 percent brine solution. This solution can be applied on a road even before a storm and is also slowly sprayed on the rock pellets right before they are distributed onto a road. “This solution not only makes the salt work better, but also makes the product stay in the area where we spread it,” Freeman said.
Salt is not cheap. This year, it costs $690,000 to fill the county’s salt shed. Salt costs have been steadily rising over the years and this year it costs $69 a ton. One plow truck can hold 11 tons of salt or sand. This batch comes from Marinette and is mined from beneath the Detroit River. “A big cost of salt is trucking it here,” said Freeman.
Not only is this salt spread on roads, but it’s also mixed with sand that local townships purchase for use on back roads. The sand is residue from gravel that is mined from five pits throughout the county and is mixed with salt in a 95 to 5 ratio for environmental purposes. “The DNR has strict rules on how this mixture can be stored,” said Freeman. “It has to be stored in a place so that no leaching occurs, otherwise it goes into the ground water and can affect the quality of drinking water in nearby wells.”
The highway budget is one of the largest for all county departments coming in at $2.8 million. Of that, $1.3 million comes from the tax levy and the remainder comes from the Department of Transportation. Besides all the products that must be purchased to apply onto the roads during the winter season, equipment is also costly. One plow truck can cost anywhere from $168,000 to $243,000, depending on size. Two county mechanics are constantly working on one or two at any given moment. “I’m very proactive with maintenance and up keep,” said Freeman, “but the really cold weather we have had is hard on all the machinery. Hoses break and hydraulics take a beating.”
In addition, the equipment has had little rest this year. “We had a really late spring and an early winter, so that can be a factor as far as the budget goes,” Freeman said, “and when you run the trucks more, you not only spend more on salt and sand but fuel, too.”
While Freeman has been working for the Oneida County Highway Department for a little more than quarter of a century, he still finds the job interesting and one he takes very seriously. “I take a lot of pride in how the roads are cleaned up after a storm,” he said. “My goal is to keep them as safe as possible and I take it very personally when people die in weather-related crashes. At all costs, we want to prevent that.”