Road windfall: Mild winter means savings for IM, county

IRON MOUNTAIN – A warm and almost snow-free start to the winter has been a holiday season gift for Iron Mountain and Dickinson County road crews.

After two severe winters that racked up costs for overtime and materials, city and county staff have relished the luxury of leaving the trucks parked and the salt and sand in storage well into December.

“The last two years were just horrific for the men,” said Dan Dinnocenzo, Iron Mountain public works supervisor. “So this is nice.”

The region didn’t receive its first substantial snowfall until Monday night, and has seen temperatures consistently above normal through December, which weather experts say could rank among the warmest on record.

The rare conditions for the Upper Peninsula already have saved Dickinson County and the Michigan Department of Transportation, which contracts with the county to tend the state highways, about $80,000 on salt alone, said Jim Harris, superintendent of operations for the Dickinson County Road Commission.

In contrast, he said, the county had to spend an extra $13,000 last winter to buy another 200 tons of materials for treating the roads.

Harris did not have an overall estimate for how much his department might benefit from the mild winter – that likely won’t be clear until 2016 – but said “it should be a substantial savings for us.”

Those savings so far have been sunk back into road maintenance that usually would have ended by November when the ground normally freezes, Harris said.

They’ve been able to do culverts, some ditch work and building up roads with gravel, even some tree cutting, Harris said.

“This is really an exceptional year,” he said.

In Iron Mountain, Dinnocenzo said he can’t remember a winter this tame in his 36 years with the city.

“It’s pretty amazing,” he said.

Like the county, Iron Mountain crews have used the extended fall weather to get in late pothole repairs and tree trimming, Dinnocenzo said.

“Just getting caught up on it … getting a lot of little things done,” Dinnocenzo said.

The weather pattern also bodes well for avoiding a repeat of the severe cold two years ago that drove ground frost so deep water mains froze, he said.

The National Weather Service has attributed the mild winter to the effects of a strong El Nino in the Pacific Ocean, which tends to bring warmer temperatures and less snow to the Upper Midwest.

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