Talking Michigan Transportation

Gearing up for a bomb cyclone on the Lake Michigan shore

January 10, 2024 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 6 Episode 168
Talking Michigan Transportation
Gearing up for a bomb cyclone on the Lake Michigan shore
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, MDOT’s coordinator for snow plowing and other maintenance on state routes in four west Michigan counties talks about preparations for heavy snow in the forecast for this weekend. 

Kurt Fritz, who coordinates maintenance on state trunkline (I, M and US routes) in Mason, Oceana, Muskegon and Ottawa counties, talks about his work with the local road agencies that maintain those routes under contract with MDOT.

Nationally, forecasters are using the term “bomb cyclone” blizzard for what’s headed for the Midwest.  Reports this week said an earlier storm hit more than 30 states with snow, ice, rain, or thunderstorms and encompassed more than 2 million square miles.  

Jeff Cranson:

Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. As you've no doubt heard, if you live just about anywhere in Michigan, the forecast calls for some serious winter weather this coming weekend. We're talking about Arctic cold and below zero wind chills, probably on the west side of the state. So I thought this would be a good time to talk to someone who is in the thick of preparing for these kinds of storms, Kurt Fritz, who is a maintenance coordinator for four of the MDOT counties that see some of the heaviest snowfall because of the Lake Michigan lake effect machine. From Mason through Oceana on down to Muskegon in Ottawa. He has to work with the county road agencies and the people that plow the roads to coordinate on timing and making sure that equipment is up to speed and all things that go into that. So he and his counterparts across the state are keeping a very close eye on these forecasts and he talks about what all goes into that and that kind of planning and how to do things as safely and efficiently as possible, and he also talks about his background and what got him to this position and why he's still passionate about it. So I hope you enjoy the conversation. So again, as promised, I'm with Kurt Fritz, who is recently ensconced as the maintenance coordinator out of the Muskegon Transportation Service Center, meaning he's coordinating with local agencies that do the plowing and other maintenance on state trunk lines and the snow belt some of the heaviest snowfall counties in the state all along the lakeshore. Kurt, thanks for taking time to talk about things this week as you get ready for the first really big snowstorms.

Kurt Fritz:

Yeah, well, that's what they're saying. Anyways, We'll wait and see what it actually ends up producing, but sure it's a pleasure to be over here. at least a nice image of scenery

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah well, if it's not as huge, it wouldn't be the first time that meteorologists at all the West Michigan TV stations miss the mark.

Kurt Fritz:

But right now. Yeah, exactly, we got to be ready to switch gears forwards or backwards on any of these storms that come up.

Jeff Cranson:

So talk first a little bit about your background and how long you've been doing this in one capacity or another, and what you like about your work and what feeds your passions.

Kurt Fritz:

Well, all right, I will try to not go back too far. I worked for the Public Works Department in the South suburbs of Chicago when I got out of college, waiting to decide on a career and put my degree to use. And the more I worked outside and the more we tried to figure solutions for problems that were unsolved, the more I began to enjoy the weather and the different challenges, the variety. I really liked that. And then the other thing I really liked to do was come to Michigan every weekend and go camping along the Lakeshore. Muskegon, Pierre Marquette so this is my 25th year I took a job, said you know what, I love it in Michigan and rather live there. So, took the family we moved up here in 1998, got a job in Grand Rapids to get my foot in the door with MDOT and have traveled around the region. I've done some snow removal in the winters in Fenville, Hastings, Plainwell. I was a supervisor in the Reed City garage for four years, went back to Grand Rapids as a coordinator, which that's what I've been doing for the last 12 in Kent County and Ionia County. And now I have a chance and an opportunity to get to the Lakeshore. That was the area that drew me up here in the first place. So I'm looking at this as a great opportunity as a coordinator. When I was working on the MDOT specialty crews, we would come up this way and get trees and signs and those types of activities, but that's specialty operations. So, with the contract counties, they do everything else everything but those specialty things for us. So 90, 95% of what happens on the Lakeshore or in any other contract county is all performed by the county itself under contract.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I want to talk a little bit more about that system and shed some light on that, because I suspect a lot of people don't know that most of the plowing that's done on on the state routes across the state is done under contract, which is a very efficient way to do it. So to get to that, let's talk a little bit about what you're hearing the forecast, if it's, correct. In the counties that you're talking about that you're responsible for Mason, Oceana, Muskegon, Ottawa some of the heaviest snow belt counties in the in the state. If it comes to pass what they're saying, we're going to measure this in feet, not inches. So how do you get ready for that?

Kurt Fritz:

Well, you got a lot of guys over here on the lakeshore with a lot of experience. The counties have been doing this for a long time. This is, I guess, you know more, maybe more significant than what they've been reporting in the past for volume. So if, if this forecast comes true, we're going to be, you know, blades down twenty-four seven. These will be pulled on shifts. So it's going to be, you know, night and day, until the snow machine turns off probably won't be using a lot of material with these volumes of snow. I have been involved on the lakeshore with Kent County. We've actually done some things where Kent County, through a mutual aid agreement, has sent drivers to the lakeshore to get experience to assist. So if this isn't, you know, an inland event, we can also use other counties as resources to come over here and assist as needed. So that's something that we've been working on in the last couple years and this may be one of those times and fortunately for me, you know, I'm currently working with Kent County and the lakeshore counties, so might be able to pull some resources, so to speak, if we need to.

Jeff Cranson:

I mean, there'd be one thing if these were all forces that reported directly to MDOT and you would go out to the garages and work with the MDOT plow drivers and kick some tires and talk about you know what's necessary to get the trucks ready, but you've got a kind of another layer in between and you have to finesse those relationships a little bit so you're not just ordering them around, since they actually, you know, have their own reporting system and their county road commissions. So how do you, how do you balance that?

Kurt Fritz:

Yeah, that is an interesting part. You know you're not directing your requesting and coordinating mostly with the supervisors or sometimes with the managing director directly, and you know your instructions and your plans, kind of go into their hands. Each county has, you know, unlike MDOT, we have pretty much the same equipment and the same practices and guidelines that we adhere to for our system and our employees stay on our system twenty-four seven. They don't have a secondary or primary county roads that they are also responsible for. So, we have to understand that there are also other needs outside of MDOT that the county is responsible to perform. So, we talk about what is the target, what is the goal. Obviously we need priority on some trunk line, but at some point you can't, if we're going to get two feet of snow, no, you just can't let the other system suffer for that long. So, there's definitely some more challenges, that being said, to discuss, but it really doesn't. I think the operators, really, again, we, we rely on their knowledge and experience and then, as a coordinator, when something like this happens, this type of scale of an event, I would then turn into more of a first responder type role. You know, back up the county in that respect, because if it's not snowing, you know they kind of they'll cover that for us, but when it is snowing, you know all iron is on the road and they don't have people waiting at the shop for an assignment. So, then as a coordinator I will plug into that road patrol kind of emergency management role, that we do.

Jeff Cranson:

I know if you get into some of the really difficult years and we haven't had any in a while with, you know, polar vortex, probably four or five years. But obviously, last winter was fairly mild. I think we hit our average in snowfall, but it came in spurts and never, you know, all at once. This season has started terribly slow, and I say that as someone who actually loves winter and love snow. So I see it as a bad thing, and I think it's a bad thing for the environment too. But setting that aside, do you find that the folks, they gear up for this, they get excited, you know hearing that there's going to be a big storm like this and they've got to tackle it. Maybe that fatigue sets in later in the season. But what? What do you find the, the outlook to be of the, the plow drivers going into something like this?

Kurt Fritz:

You know these guys that I work with, and in all the counties they don't like to sit around. They want to do something, you know, and most people do. They're like you know, look, we need an activity and winter is our bread and butter. And if we're not, you know, especially the night crew, you know we're here for this reason and predominantly, what else are we gonna do? Well, when it snows, everyone gets in their truck. They're happy, they enjoy it over time in certain scenarios. So I think, generally, the sentiment is let's go, let's have winter like we used to. I'd like to see it return myself.

Jeff Cranson:

That's great. We're definitely in agreement on that. I'm hopeful for the Northern Michigan economy that this continues for a while, because, as you know, it's been a slow start for the ski resorts and certainly for the places that rely on snowmobiling too.

Kurt Fritz:

Absolutely. When I was in Chicago it was an annual tradition that we would head up to Cadillac and ride the trails, you know, and you don't see that stuff happening anymore. People kind of have given up and you know, the motorists are probably not happy about the snow, but, like you said, the industry and the employees that rely on it for jobs. We welcome snow in Michigan.

Jeff Cranson:

I hear a lot of good things from people. I know. I know that would belie maybe what you see on some of the social media feeds, where people are constantly asking questions like you know, why didn't you apply more salt? But for the most part, anecdotally at least, people I know in the Grand Rapids area are very pleased with how quickly the trunk lines are made passable and safe after these kinds of storms. So, I think you should feel good about that.

Kurt Fritz:

That's good. And again, that goes back to the drivers, the supervisors, the employees that you know. They're out there doing it ahead of anyone else. You want to see really bad road conditions, drive a snow plow because you're the first one that has to go through any of it.

Jeff Cranson:

Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.

MDOT Message:

Did you know? Newton's first law of motion states that a body in motion will continue moving at the same speed and same direction, while the second law states that an object acted upon by the force will undergo Wait, I thought this was a snow plow safety message? It is, which is why this is relevant. Don't you think that's complicating things just a bit? Not at all. A snow plow weighs 17 times more than your average car. Right, and snow plows tend to travel at slower than posted speeds. So the third law states that action and reaction are equal and opposite. I think it's easier just to remind motorists to give plows the room they need to do their jobs, follow at a safe distance and don't drive into snow clouds, things like that. Well, if you're gonna make it that simple, why don't you just say don't crowd the plow? Great idea stay safe this winter. Don't crowd the plow, that's it? Yeah, that's it.

Jeff Cranson:

So have you found at all these last few years in the pandemic and as we slowly emerged from it and we know that speeding was up across the state and serious crashes were up because of that do you find less regard for the drivers? Do you hear stories about people being less respectful, giving the proper space and doing all the things that we advise them to do when encountering plows?

Kurt Fritz:

Definitely notice the increase in speeds, something that I call drifting. People just don't even seem to know where the edge line in the center line is anymore, and you can come really close to rubbing doors with somebody if you're not paying attention. So, yes, I've noticed that. I haven't been in a plow truck in a while, but we've added wing lights, now extended in the air, so that we had quite a few not quite a few, but enough accidents where people were trying to pass a snow plow that was using a wing. Those types of incidents, I think maybe are down since we've lit up the wing. And yeah, we definitely put the word out there. I'm working with the TOC in Grand Rapids to maybe start putting some messages on our DMS board saying winter operations in progress, watch for snow plows. I know that's something that the Indiana DOT does. We definitely are aware that people with driving habits have changed a little bit over the last few years.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I mean there are stories across the country about how seatbelt usage compliance has even gone down. I still can't even get my head around how that can be.

Kurt Fritz:

Right, it's an automatic. I don't know who forgot.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, some people actually find creative ways to disable the alarm system. Talk a little bit more about the efficiencies and the economies of scale that come with doing it the way that MDOT does and I know some other states do, not all states, but with the contract system, as opposed to having all direct forces.

Kurt Fritz:

Again, you're talking about apples to oranges because you have dedicated state employees to dedicate it to the state trunk line, versus a contractor that has your system and his system in mind. You're really sharing your resources with MDOT and, as far as efficiencies are concerned, I think both models are extremely efficient. MDOT has its own set of guidelines. I think I mentioned earlier that the counties they have a maintenance contract that says this is what we would like to see. How you get there is not exactly dictated by MDOT. Make sure our level of service is being maintained and if a county is looking or a contractor is looking for a way to save money on their system, that innovation is probably going to apply to our system because they're not going to switch gears or switch equipment or use different materials for us as they would for themselves. When they're looking at those efficiencies, they get applied to ours just like we look for them when we do balance and scatter studies and liquid only application routes. We're sharing information back and forth, but I think both entities operate very effectively for us.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, that's good to know. You talked a little bit. You mentioned the TOC, the Traffic Operations Center at the Grand Region Office in Grand Rapids, and this is where people monitor huge screens so they can see what's going on in the entire region. On the state trunk lines there's another one that handles much of the state in the Lansing area and then, of course, southeast Michigan and Detroit. How does the work they do and the technology they use factor into your planning and how you prepare for these kinds of storms?

Kurt Fritz:

Let me just give a shout out to our TOC in Grand Rapids. They really have a good pulse and an eye and an ear to what's going on in our region. They're almost like a dispatch. They're monitoring state police, Kent County, local. They really have a good idea, a good grip on what's happening with our camera coverage too. Often they can see what I can't see until I'm getting to a potential scene. They can see the traffic slowdowns and then start asking questions what could possibly be happening there? Well, there's two feet of snow and it's really coming down hard. They're a great, great resource for us. The people we have are very knowledgeable. They know what the goal is at the end of the day. Very, very happy to have them. It's a one-stop shopping. If I need information, it's obviously not possible for one person to come up 100 lane miles of highway by themselves. Our eye in the sky and our TOC do a great job assisting us with our operations.

Jeff Cranson:

I want to keep you much longer. You're kind enough to step away from a garage where you were checking out some equipment in Scottville and Mason County. Mason County, Ludington area is definitely going to be in the eye of this storm, if the forecasts are correct. Is there anything else you want to say that you would want people to know?

Kurt Fritz:

Just be careful. Obviously, that's always the message. Mind the plow drivers for sure. We've talked about that earlier. We have good equipment, we have a lot of excellent operators and knowledgeable staff on the road, so you trust us to do our job and slow down. I think we're going to get through this. We always do. I don't know that there's been a storm or an event that we said, well, we're done, we give up, but we're going to get there. We're going to get there.

Jeff Cranson:

Did you ever see that old film that was unearthed a few years ago, that goes back to the 30s? When winter comes to Michigan. Have you ever seen that?

Kurt Fritz:

I sure did. Mike Heist brought a copy of that over years ago and we watched it at special crews and I just couldn't believe what those guys were shoveling by hand out the back of a truck and the volumes of snow are just incredible with little to no equipment or materials. So, if they could handle it, then we can handle it now I'll tell you that.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I think that's good inspiration. Actually, I'll post a link to that video in the show notes.

Kurt Fritz:

Absolutely. Yeah.

Jeff Cranson:

So yeah, Kurt, thank you very much. Good luck in your new role. This is going to be your first big trial. Good timing, I guess.

Kurt Fritz:

Absolutely, we're ready.

Jeff Cranson:

All right, thank you.

Kurt Fritz:

All right, okay, Jeff.

Jeff Cranson:

Thanks. I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talents of people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debbler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

Preparing for Winter Storms on Lakeshore
Efficiencies and Technology in MDOT Operations
Thanking and Acknowledging the Team