Contractor Plowers Get Overwhelmed

February 4, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — As the terminal of a bus system that serves 24,000 people a day as well as Greyhound and Indian Trails intercity bus services, few facilities see more vehicles and patrons coming and going than the Rapid Central Station.

Still in its first year of operation, the $22.8 million, LEED-certified facility boasts a covered, lighted boarding and deboarding platform that’s nearly the length of two football fields and has a built-in snowmelt system.

It can accommodate up to 17 buses simultaneously and is equipped with heated waiting areas, information kiosks, seating and a concession area.

But it becomes a lot less impressive if the drive doesn’t get plowed and the walk isn’t shoveled — the holiday surprise Interurban Transit Partnership staff received upon the season’s first snowfall Thanksgiving weekend. Then it happened again a week later. And when the snow was cleared, the contractor covered the facility with an obscene amount of salt that was tracked through the brand new building.

“Our snowmelt system takes care of critical areas, but we wanted sidewalks plowed and they didn’t plow them, or they’d plow them at the priority they wanted,” said Peter Varga ITP executive director. “Our response time is important. We have a lot of customers and we want to make sure our building has easy access.

“We just wanted certain things done a certain way and they weren’t doing them.”

Procare Landscape Management President Dirk Bakhuyzen said that he has seen situations like this every season for two decades.

He received a handful of calls from unhappy businesses this month, most of which he was forced to turn away. His firm could only accommodate one such request, a prior customer that had gone with a cheaper option this year, and then only because there was a landscape contract involved.

“It starts snowing and the phone starts ringing,” Bakhuyzen said. “And we’ve been turning everyone away because our routes are full.”

D.J. VanderSlik, president of D.J.’s Lawn Service Inc., took on a new customer this month as well, but only because the request came from an existing customer that needed to add another property when the provider there fell through.

“We’ll leave a little bit of time on everyone’s route, so maybe we can add one driveway or something,” VanderSlik said. “Or we try to put them in touch with someone else that can take care of them.”

As of Jan. 1, the ITP is using a new contractor, Chem Brite.

The firm keeps a truck on call for Rapid Central Station throughout the day, ready to respond at a half-inch of snow. For walks and ice, Chem Brite has used a liquid de-icer instead of salt.

President Art Kauranen said his firm was well prepared to take on an account with the center’s needs. In fact, he had expected to be doing so back in November.

The past three years, Chem Brite had provided the snow and ice removal for the former downtown transit center at 210 Ionia Ave. NW. Kauranen thought that relationship would continue, but was surprised when he was underbid.

“We thought we had it in the bag to begin with,” Kauranen said. “This was cutthroat bidding. People go to the bottom and then they’re surprised when the work doesn’t get done.”

“You have to look at expectations,” VanderSlik said. “You can’t go for the lowest price and want the world.”

When VanderSlik takes on a client, he is careful to understand the needs and expectations of each account. If the property is to be plowed once every two inches or 24 hours, he knows it’ll be plowed no more than 25 to 35 times a year.

“But if they want it salted every time there is a flake of snow,” he said, “I know we’re going to have to work harder to meet those expectations.”

Much of that is use-specific. He cited a multi-use property with different needs by tenant. The retail occupants needed service several times in a day, especially in the evening. The industrial tenants didn’t need any service after 5 p.m.

He also can tell if the account might require other resources, like front-end loaders, skid steers of shovel crews.

“It’s the customer’s responsibility to find out who they are dealing with but it’s the contractor’s responsibility to find out the expectations of the customer.”

The best way to judge a potential contractor is by turnaround-time, equipment and profession, Bakhuyzen said.

Procare’s 20-truck fleet usually finishes each route in about four hours during a normal snowfall, from two to eight inches of snow. If every account on a given route had to be finished by 6 or 7 a.m. — the standard for snow removal — each truck would have to be on the road by no later than 2 or 3 a.m.

“If it normally takes eight hours, or if a plower isn’t making it in eight hours, you get a big snow and it takes that much longer,” Bakhuyzen said. “Now you’re looking at 12 to 16 hours. That’s too long. Then what if it keeps snowing and you have to go do it again?”

The worst situations arise when the snow comes during the late evening hours, he said. Naturally, the less time between snow and dawn, the harder it is to finish.

Tom Wiarda of S.J. Wisinski & Co.’s property management division agreed. He said there have been a number of times this year when the snow came after midnight and Wisinski’s dozen contractors didn’t get started until 6 a.m.

“They get behind and we start getting calls from tenants,” he said. “If someone doesn’t cut your grass on the same day each week or get behind or skips a week it’s not the end of the world. Snow plowing has to be done by the time the building opens for business.”    

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