By Robert Tomlinson
CENTREVILLE — The St. Joseph County Road Commission gave itself a mostly positive review for how they handled a holiday snowstorm during their first meeting of 2023 on Wednesday, Jan. 4.
Road Commission Manager John Lindsey said he was “very thankful” for the snowplowing crew, led by Director of Operations Don Preston, for their work plowing snow following the Christmas weekend snowstorm. He noted that there were some “hotspots” where “the wind just wouldn’t lay down,” but overall said the crew did a good job.
“We had quite a storm coming through, and we did work Friday, Saturday and four hours Christmas Day,” Lindsey said. “I’m thankful to Don and his crew, as it was Don’s first blizzard.”
Preston, in his report to the board, said on Friday, Dec. 23, his plow drivers went for eight hours, and said they knew “they wouldn’t make much headway” with how much snow was coming down. They had two people on call that night just in case there were people that needed to be dug out in areas that had problems, such as the Constantine and White Pigeon areas. He also mentioned they had to dig out “five or six cars” on Baer Road due to snowdrifts and re-open the road, plowing some roads on the way back to the garage.
“That’s why we had those guys on call, because we knew it was going to be bad. The wind wasn’t letting up. If you talk to those guys, they’d say it’s probably the worst they’ve ever seen, just because you can’t see,” Preston said. “They’re out there knowing there’s somebody in front of them, and they can’t see them.”
Preston told the board the plows ran another eight hours on Saturday, Dec. 24, and said the team “knew we weren’t going to get away with not working on Christmas,” which led to crews being out for a few hours on Christmas Day. In total, Preston said they used 20 tons of salt/sand mix on the 23rd, five tons on the 24th, on Christmas Day they used 80 tons, and then another 350 tons for cleanup the days afterward.
“We were able to clean everything up in just a few days,” Preston said. “There were roads where we had to send graders out – and we haven’t done that since 2013-14 – to knock down drifts because we had roads that were one lane, maybe a lane and a half, and you couldn’t see the edge of the road, so we cleaned those up. … That’s the reason we did what we did, and in the end, it seemed like in the end we came out alright. We got everybody out of the way without getting people hurt.”
Board Vice Chair Rodney Chupp said he had heard from one person that the roads were “great” over the holiday weekend, while he also heard complaints from a couple other people in the county. One of them, Chupp said, was “insistent” that Hoffman Road didn’t get a sand and salt mix on the road, something Chupp and board member Jack Coleman refuted, while the other brought up the snow drifting issues on Baer Road, which led to a refrain some residents in the county have about how the road commission operates snowplows.
“One of the things they said was, ‘Well, if you had some people plowing during the night, that wouldn’t have happened,’” Chupp recalled, which led into a question for Lindsey. “I know that when the wind is going crazy, you can plow it and then 30 minutes later have it blown shut again, so I know you have to use judgment on when you plow. Even if we had somebody plowing at night, would you run them at that point?”
Lindsey said the agency called a couple people back in for “emergency services” to take care of some drifting, but that “96 percent” of the lane miles of the road “didn’t need much of anything” when it came to drifts. He also addressed the plowing strategy of the agency and making roads “passable.”
“We tell the public we’re going to make the roads passable. That’s where the drifting gets to be a problem. Yes, we’re going to make it passable, but we can’t say every minute of every day everything’s going to be passable,” Lindsey said. “We try, we had guys out Friday night opening up drifted areas for emergency services, people that were stuck, and Baer Road is one of them that we sent people out there. We did open it up. Our guy may have plowed that at 3 p.m., and by 9 p.m. at night it’s drifted back shut.”
Lindsey then addressed that long-held belief by residents that an extra shift be put on for snowplowing and/or having snowplows out overnight.
“Can we put a third shift on to do the same thing we did all day long? That’s going to take 24 more drivers, or we bring in two or three guys, and they were hitting these [snowdrifts], but we have to get the call-ins of where people are stuck and what’s going on,” Lindsey said. “Can we get a couple of guys to open these things up? Yes. Can we have all 24 guys plow 24 hours a day? Obviously, we can’t.”
Board Chair Eric Shafer then discussed road conditions on state-owned roads, primarily M-60, compared to county-owned roads, saying that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the drivability of the county roads, and was “shocked” by the road conditions on M-60.
“It was a sheet of ice for the entire six miles into town,” Shafer said. Lindsey added that was the case on a lot of state-owned roads, mentioning issues with ice on I-94 that weekend, saying that what they did with M-60 is “they took that packed snow and turned it into a sheet of ice with salt.”
“They took the ice and started to melt it, they couldn’t keep it melted, more snow blew in, and then they made it ice. You can hurt yourself with ice when you get below 10 degrees,” Lindsey said. “People tell you the peak performance of salt starts to stop at 18 [degrees], and I’ll tell ya if you put a little sun on it, it can work at five [degrees]. I’m not blaming them, but I’m saying the more they plowed, and the more salt they put down, the more it was tightening up and being ice.”
In conclusion, Lindsey claimed the county’s sand/salt mix “worked better” in this application than the state’s methods. Chupp praised both Lindsey and Preston for their plan.
“We didn’t bring everybody to be here for 24 hours, but you did, in essence, come up with a plan to have people available to address those really bad areas,” Chupp said. “So, you diverted some resources from some lesser necessary areas to the worst. Sounds like you came up with a good plan to me.”
In other business…
The board approved a number of policy rescindments and policy replacements, due to outdated wording and/or new laws passed in the interim.
The board approved a clause in Lindsey’s contract that stipulates that a majority of the board, and not a majority of a quorum, is required for a motion to fire the manager if necessary.
Board Chair Eric Shafer informed board members that a situation regarding a boat and dock at a local lake will be brought before the board at their next meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 8 a.m.
In his report to the board, Engineer Garrett Myland said the agency did not receive a federal grant from the bipartisan infrastructure bill for bridge repair. He said out of the $273.9 million distributed by the federal government, two of the 12 grants distributed went to counties in the entire United States – Madera County, Calif., and Niagra County, N.Y. Three other grants went to tribes, five went to state DOTs, and two went to cities. The agency had applied for funding to fix the Farrand Road bridge, one of the longest bridges in St. Joseph County.
Myland also said in his report that bid letting for the Covered Bridge project would occur in March, that the S. Fisher Lake Rd. bridge has a contractor for design, and the Prairie Corners bridge will be going out early for proposals.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.