Icy conditions bring potholes, overtime for road crew

OSCEOLA COUNTY – It has not been a typical winter for the area.

Rather than having to clear large amounts of snow from roadways, crews from road commissions in Mecosta and Osceola counties have spent the 2016-17 winter months responding to the higher-than-usual amount of ice that has made paved and backroads slippery.

“Winters are all different, and this one seems to be one without big snow accumulation,” said Luke Houlton, manager of the Osceola County Road Commission. “It's been a little bit of a warmer winter than usual and we've seen ice, snow and rain, and even thunderstorms in January.”

Houlton said a different winter doesn't change how he and his crews approach their jobs.

“I think, for every road commission, our goal is the same: to have the roads passable as fast as we can," he said. "Sometimes we have to wait it out. In that regard, it just takes some patience. We just deal with it the best we can."

In Osceola County, Houlton said they use a 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 mixture of sand and salt. With the icy weather, it has put a little more demand on supplies.

“Through the end of January, we have used about the same amount of sand and salt we used all of last winter,” he said. “We used about 1,600 tons of salt for the entire winter last year.”

In Mecosta County, road crews use approximately 6,000 tons of salt throughout the winter months, according to Mecosta County Road Commission Supervisor Tim Nestle.

The shed at the MCRC office, on North Dekraft Avenue, houses close to 4,100 tons of salt when it is full to capacity. Currently, there is about 1,000 tons of salt left after being used by Mecosta County, the city of Big Rapids and the state road commissions.

While the MCRC mixes salt and sand for blacktops, and uses sand for gravel roads, Nestle's crew has only put salt on many roads recently covered in sheets of ice.

"Last year, we used almost 6,000 tons of salt for the year between the state and the county," Nestle said. "This year we are at 5,600 tons right now. We are right on track for what we typically use. We are mid-way or so through winter, so we are probably going to easily hit the 6,000 mark for tonnage. We definitely use what we order."

Salt is refilled during the season at the MCRC. Putting out this much salt and sand to keep streets passable calls for some longer hours for road crews.

Overtime for crews, Houlton said, has been about the same as any other winter.

“We're just responding to slippery conditions rather than a lot of snow,” he said.

The Mecosta County road crew, like in Osceola County, has been on the roads more often lately.

"During the periods of ice and freezing rain, we’ve had quite a bit of overtime to get roads cleaned up," Nestle said.

Roads are not the only things needing to be kept up under the pressure of winter weather.

Maintenance wise, Houlton said because crews have responded to a lot of ice, they have scraped a little harder and blade use is up compared to recent winter averages.

However, Houlton said he believes the fleet of vehicles will be fine.

“We've tried to update some of our fleet in recent years,” he said. “A few years ago the trucks had an average age of 13 to 14 years. Now, we're closer to 6 or 7 years. With the newer trucks they are not as problematic as the older trucks for the routine things.”

Despite the change in the type of weather the area has received, Houlton said it's business as usual for him and his staff.

“No one gets terribly excited about winter conditions,” he said “We all know it's going to happen and we just try to respond to what Mother Nature throws at us.”

With a little less than six weeks left of winter, weather will start weaning off around mid-March.

“It's not like a terrible winter, all things considered. It's just a little bit harder than last year,” he said.

No matter how much wintery weather has come to the area, Houlton said he's already receiving phone calls about potholes.

“I think when it is all said and done, this might be a harder year on us for potholes,” he said. “I would expect more just because of the type of weather we've had over the winter months.”

After clearing away ice and snow, road crews have been able to notice new potholes.

"When you’ve got extreme freezing frost, the ground is moving a lot, so it would cause more potholes," Nestle said. "Potholes are always an issue. It’s constant."

Part of Nestle's crew spent Friday filling potholes.

Houlton said the freeze/thaw cycle is very hard on the roads.

“When you have freezing temperatures overnight, and it's warmer during the day, any moisture that gets into any crack can swell up and create a void,” he said. “That's by and large what we expect, but it largely depends on how spring arrives.”

Houlton said spring also can mean problems for paved roads.

“We had a quick warming transition last year, so it got warm and stayed warm,” he said. “We only had a four-week weight restriction as the frost got out of the ground.”

That may be nice for paved roads, but Houlton said it wreaks havoc on gravel roads.

“If it warms up quickly, it will create a lot of mud on those roads,” he said. “A gradual warm up would be better for them, as it would allow the gravel to warm up during the day. When it gets cold at night, the gravel will tighten up. That will help it not be soupy during the day.”

No matter how spring arrives, there will be some issues, Houlton said.

“We all know it's coming, and from a four- to eight-week period, roads will get ugly,” he said. “The paved roads will have potholes and the gravel roads invariably will have muddy spots.”

Houlton said residents shouldn't be surprised when there are issues, either on paved roads or gravel roads in the spring.

“If it's happened for the last 20 years, you can be sure this year won't be any different,” he said. “The best constructed gravel roads will have those issues when water gets trapped in gravel until it can dry out. There's two ways that water will go away, either it will runoff into a ditch, or surface runoff, or drain down to the top of the frost and stay there until the frost is gone.”