Construction and Government

Deeper freeze might impact load limits

March 7, 2014
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Load limit restrictions might be in effect for a longer period this spring, thanks to this winter’s multiple arctic blasts.

“The frost is deeper and more dense than normal years,” said Jerry Byrne, Kent County Road Commission director of maintenance.

Byrne said one positive aspect of this year’s early snowfall is the frost is mostly only under the pavement. That means it should be pulled out of the ground quicker once the thaw begins.

The Road Commission is taking regular frost readings, he said, which will help determine when to institute this year’s weight restrictions and, eventually, when to end them.

“Restrictions go on every year,” Byrne said. “It’s just a matter of when they go on and how long they stay on, and that is all dictated by the weather.”

The weight restrictions call for a 35 percent reduction on roads that are asphalt and a 25 percent reduction on concrete routes.

Byrne said transportation and construction businesses already are calling the Road Commission for predictions of when the weight restrictions will go into effect this year. Many of the larger businesses also are doing their own monitoring to help prepare for spring.

“Some even run computer programs that help indicate when you should put weight restrictions on,” he said. “So the private side is watching it as closely or more closely than we do.”

Matt LaRue, senior project manager at Bultsma Excavating, said having weight restrictions in effect for a longer period will impact businesses like his, and even just having the restrictions go into effect later in the spring than would be typical will have some degree of impact on projects.

That’s because it affects project schedules and rental equipment timelines, among other things.

“A lot of owners are understanding,” he said. “Everybody is being flexible right now.”

Reg Klooster, general manager at Grand Rapids Gravel, doesn’t expect longer weight restrictions to be much of an issue for his company because most of its jobs this spring don’t require drivers to travel class B roadways, which he said are where the weight restrictions are involved.

“The only way it affects you is if you are on class B roads; if you are running Class A roads you are all set,” he said.

“If you are in the residential market it could hurt you more. You could have a 40-yard wall for a home and instead of taking four trucks, you could double that to get it done, and that certainly costs the ready-mix companies some money.”

LaRue also mentioned that when weight restrictions are in force for longer periods and potholes are more of a concern, enforcement increases. He expects many more trucks will be pulled over this year to verify they are following weight restrictions.

Roads controlled by the Michigan Department of Transportation might fare a little better than country roads.

“Right now, it’s (frost) in the 42- to 46-inch range, which is pretty normal for Kent County this time of year,” said John Richard, MDOT communications representative.

MDOT only has a handful of seasonal roads.

“MDOT routes are U.S., M and I routes,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot of seasonal roads; that is mainly on the local system, like the county road commission, the city and villages — more out in the rural part of the state.”

Weight restrictions will be the lesser concern for both MDOT and the Kent County Road Commission, however. 

“Our biggest concern is what the thaw is going to do to the conditions of the pavement,” Byrne said.

There is the expectation that weather conditions might result in a bad spring breakup, which means the roads will be left in a horrific state. Drivers should expect massive potholes along their daily commutes.

“If we have a bad spring breakup, we also have more than 300 miles of gravel roads in this county,” Byrne said. “When the blacktops go bad, the gravel looks worse; the bottom goes out and we have to close them. Sometimes you can’t even get through them.”

The last bad spring breakup occurred in 2008, he said.

Most likely the Road Commission and MDOT will be left patching the roads in what is referred to as a checkerboard fashion.

“We are going to do a lot more temporary type repairs,” he said. “Instead of repaving three miles of road, we may do spot repairs on 10 miles.”

It will likely be another two months before that repair work can even start, however.

Money continues to be an issue for Michigan’s roadways, and this winter isn’t going to help that situation. “We’ve spent our winter maintenance budget — we’re a little over $1 million — so that concerns us,” Byrne said.

Legislators are trying to work out a funding bill that will help alleviate some of the strain on the transportation agencies due to the expensive winter, but it’s unclear how much money will be allocated and the bill is moving slower than expected.

“I think the big story is just the continued under-investment in roads and bridges statewide,” Richard said. “That is not just the state routes but the county road commissions and the cities and villages.

“If you think the roads are bad now, just wait. It’s going to continue to get worse and worse.”

Richard said checkerboard fixes are not a good solution and the state has to figure out how to fund more permanent repairs to its deteriorating infrastructure — something that has been echoed repeatedly by Gov. Rick Snyder.

“We’ve been funded the same way since 1951 with the gas taxes, and that’s not working anymore.”

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