ROGERS CITY - With more snowfall than the past three Decembers combined, Presque Isle County Road Commission crews spent plenty of time and money digging out at the end of 2013.
Sixty inches of snow fell near the road commission garage in Rogers City, Superintendent Gerald Smigelski said, and other spots in the county likely received more; compare that to 20 inches total in December 2012 and 10 from 2011.
As the snow piled on, so too did costs; the road commission spent $277,628 to maintain local and primary roads, and billed the Michigan Department of Transportation $138,366 to maintain state trunklines, according to road commission figures. Smigelski said if January and February snowfall totals are anything like December's, the road commission might have to readjust its own budget later in 2014.
"If the winter continues like it does, what it usually does is cut down on the programs that we can do in the summer months, as far as road improvement-type projects and purchases," he said.
The road commission expects to get $1,385,000 for primary road maintenance and $861,500 for local road maintenance in 2014, Smigelski said. That money comes from gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees collected in the Michigan Transportation Fund, and divvied up according to the state's Act 51 formula. The county contracts with MDOT to maintain state trunklines in its borders, namely, US-23, M-33, M-65, M-68 and M-211.
The county road commission is within budget so far, but is hoping for an easier January and February, Smigelski said.
Most of the road commission funding, including money for winter maintenance, comes from the Michigan Transportation Fund, Smigelski said. Funding levels have remained stagnant for years, and the average age of a plow truck in the county's fleet is 17 years. Extreme cold and lots of snowy days means even more wear on the aging fleet. One new truck should be in service by February, and will cost the road commission around $210,000 to buy and outfit for service.
"Like a lot of road commissions, we're having difficulty being able to budget for purchasing new equipment because our funding has been stagnant for so long," he said.
An especially snowy winter that requires lots of hours behind the wheel to keep the road clear could compound the problem this year, Smigelski added.
The road commission measures snowfall from Nov. 1 through the end of March, and the five-year average for that total is 104 inches, Smigelski said. Since 1955, the road commission has dealt with considerably more; in the winter of 1970-71, 184.9 inches fell in Rogers City, although recent totals have been below that average.
Overall, the road commission budgets around $500,000 for winter maintenance on primary roads and $450,000 for the same on local roads, with the total based on a five-year average of expenses, Smigelski said. Unlike state and local governments, Presque Isle County Road Commission's budget year aligns with the calendar year. This means winter maintenance funding for one budget must cover the last three months of one snowfall season, and first two of the next.
Eric Precord, transportation maintenance coordinator for MDOT's Alpena Traffic Services Center, said December's snowfall totals could be higher than any in the last 10 years. MDOT has a budget for counties that contract with it to maintain the roads, also based on a five-year average, and Presque Isle County could go over its winter maintenance budget if heavy snowfall continues into 2014.
Going over that budget means the county could have less money for maintenance projects along state trunklines, Precord said. Unused winter maintenance money can be used for other projects like tree removal and roadside ditch digging.
"Any money left over from the winter maintenance budget stays with that county's budget, but we can transfer that to different line items," he said.
In addition, Presque Isle County and others in the northern Lower Peninsula that contract with MDOT have for the past few years received additional money from a winter contingency fund, Precord said. There's one set up annually for each of the department's seven regions statewide, and it's meant to cover state trunkline winter maintenance cost overruns. Spending down that contingency fund could mean less money in the summer for routine maintenance or larger projects.