Talking Michigan Transportation

Big snowfall is coming; how MDOT prepares

February 01, 2022 Season 4 Episode 91
Talking Michigan Transportation
Big snowfall is coming; how MDOT prepares
Show Notes Transcript

This week, as meteorologists forecast a major winter storm for much of lower Michigan, the head of statewide maintenance and operations for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) talks about all the crews are doing to prepare. 

Mark Geib, who is moving on to private industry after a rich 31-year career at MDOT, talks about the evolution of road maintenance work, innovations and all he’s witnessed.  

He also shares an outline for what snowplow drivers and other employees are doing across the state to prepare for the storm. This includes preparation of equipment for MDOT’s fleet and for the 63 county agencies that plow state trunklines under contract. He explains why that hybrid model is unique to Michigan but saves taxpayers money because of economies of scale. 

He also talks about how MDOT’s plow-naming initiative has put a spotlight on the Mi Drive site and allowed people to track the plows. 

Geib’s outline for preparation for winter storms: 

Prior to a storm/winter event:

  • Snowplow trucks are refueled and checked over mechanically
  • Employees are informed and briefed of the coming event in preparation
  • Communication happens between adjacent maintenance facilities as needed to coordinate, including MDOT's county road association partners 

As the storm/winter event approaches:

  • Maintenance employees are called in/report to work
  • Road patrols drive the roads, monitoring conditions
  • The storm is monitored via weather outlets and the MDOT Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS)
  • MDOT maintains two work shifts to cover all 24 hours 

Geib also discusses innovations to limit the use of salt on the roads, including successful measures that save on the cost of salt and help protect the environment by limiting what makes its way into tributaries.  

This includes another explanation of how salt loses effectiveness in extremely cold temperatures.


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: Welcome again to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. Today, I'm feeling a little bittersweet because Mark Geib, who is a long-time head of statewide maintenance for MDOT, is moving on. And this will be his last appearance on the podcast, at least in this capacity. But I thought it was appropriate to speak to him both to get his parting thoughts, and also to talk about the winter blast that is anticipated for the middle of the week in much of southern Michigan, lower Michigan. Mark, thanks for taking time to talk on a busy day.

Mark Geib: Oh, you're very welcome, Jeff.

Cranson: So, let's talk real briefly, before we get into this storm, about your career a little bit, and how many years at MDOT, especially in this position. And tell me you know what thoughts you've gained, and what wisdom you'd like to share about innovations and changes that you've seen over the years.

Geib: Well, sure. Yeah, you know, I’ve been with MDOT for 31 years, roughly. I started back in 1990. I was gone for about a year and a half break in there, but I came back. I’ve been in my current position here overseeing the TSMO division, which includes maintenance and operations, for about the past 12 years.

Cranson: Okay, now explain TSMO.

Geib: Yeah, that's the Transportation Systems Management and Operations. And to boil that down further, that's Traffic and Safety, ITS, Intelligent Transportation Systems, maintenance and operations and fleet and facilities for MDOT.

Cranson: Yes, and people use the acronym and call it TSMO. And I still wonder if, you know, Joe Six-pack thinks of operations as something somebody else does, or they think that they're the operator because, you know, they're driving the car.

Geib: Right. Yeah, that that's true, although the roads do need to be operated. I mean, we get, you know, messaging out there on our dynamic message signs. We operate the roads by taking care of the roads, by filling potholes, clearing the snow off, melting the ice, clearing the dead animals off the road, etc.

Cranson: So, it just means keep traffic moving.

Geib: Exactly.

Cranson: Okay, I’m sorry. Go ahead with more.

Geib: Yeah, well, you know, my career has evolved. It started out in construction, and then I actually spent probably 75 percent of my career in Maintenance and Operations, predominantly, with a few stints as a TSC manager at three different TSCs. So, I’ve gotten to see quite a bit of MDOT. I’ve definitely enjoyed my career. It's a little surreal leaving after doing something for this long. MDOT has become sort of like a second family to me. I’ll still be keeping in touch with a lot of people and all that. And I’m actually still going to be living in Michigan, so maybe instead of me answering to people's concerns about what's going on, now I’ll be one of the ones asking questions. But on the other hand, since I understand what happens and, you know, how MDOT prepares to safely move the traveling public from point A to point B, you know, I can help carry on the word even in my next career, so to speak.

Cranson: Yeah, feel free to jump on the Facebook page and, you know, help Jesse answer those questions.

Geib: I will do that. It’s not a problem because a lot of times it's just people not understanding all the dynamics of what's going on. Yeah, we make a very concerted effort to do the best job possible with the resources that we have.

Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. So, just maybe briefly touch on what changes, what's evolved, what you have seen, you know, improvements. Michigan, in so many areas of transportation, has always been on the leading edge, and I think that's also true when it comes to winter maintenance.

Geib: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we we've done a number of things. I mean, even, you know, in the past 15 years we've become way more efficient on how we use salt. We only use it when we need it. We use the amount that's going to be effective, so there's been net savings, both in money and positive impact to the environment. We've brought in tow plows. Those big separate, you know, trailers that have, like, a really large blade on them. They carry salt, so, you know, one truck can plow two lanes instead of one. We put wings on the plow trucks, so we can do more. We've gotten a little more sophisticated equipment on the trucks for dispensing the salt. One of the big changes has been having a Maintenance Decision Support System, which is basically in-cab real-time advice coming to the drivers that's collecting, you know, road and weather data and, you know, giving information to the driver as to what rate of salt, how much they'd be putting down at any one given time. So, that way we're not putting down too little or too much, or even whether they ought to be putting down salt. So, you know, we've done more training because that's one of the keys to doing a good job is providing trading to the employees, whether they're new or existing employees. So, it’s, you know, keeping your skills sharp and people learning from other people. I mean, MDOT has been very aggressive with interacting with our county road commissions and partnering with them, all the various road commissions, with other states, AASHTO, Clear Roads initiative. There's been a whole bunch of things we do to try to stay on the cutting-edge, exchanging information, using best practices, sharing our best practices with other people. Everybody benefits from that, not just in Michigan but around the United States.

Cranson: Well, you know, when you talk about the salt usage, for instance, and some of the things that you've implemented to really save on the use of salt, both to save taxpayers money but also to help protect the environment, how do you balance those speeds of the plows deciding, you know, they'll go slower and there won't be as much as bounce and scatter, you know, with the safety of the plow going slower when, no matter what the conditions are, it seems like everybody wants to drive 85 miles an hour?

Geib: Right, right. Well, that's one of the things a lot of drivers learn in the training we do, and it's a judgment call. For instance, if they're in conditions where they need to keep moving because a storm is coming so hard and you need to keep the speed up so you're getting the plowing done so you can make your round trips and stay on top of it, so the roads don't, you know, get too much snow on them, they're going to run at higher speeds. It’ll be a trade-off. If they can run slower and do it safely to keep more salt on the road, then they do that. But there's other things we do to save salt. I mean, we do pre-wetting. We wet with a salt brine. We pre-wet our salt in a lot of areas with agricultural byproduct, which not only helps the salt kind of act quicker and stick to the road when we drop it, but we can salt at lower temperatures. I know a lot of people know this, but for the ones that don't, salt typically doesn't really work very well under 15 degrees Fahrenheit. So, we tend to stop using it because if you kind of get in that range of 10 to 15 and you put salt down, it might work in some areas because of the sun helping it and traffic, and then not in others. Then it can refreeze, and you can actually create ice on the road. So, drivers are trained to not do that. If we use the agricultural byproduct, sometimes you can get down as low as five degrees, and it'll still work. Now, that costs a little more money, but in the same token, it's a balancing act. We need to get the ice off the road. We need to keep the roads clear for the safety of the traveling public and for mobility so, you know, school buses, fire engines, people commuting, everybody can get to where they need to get to and get there safely.

Cranson: So, you talked a little bit about, you know, using that technology to stay in touch more and that the drivers can use to know where to apply, where they've been, all those things that can be tracked across the system. And that kind of extends to what we've done by putting the plows on Mi Drive so people can see where they are. We've talked, as you know, had a lot of fun with the initiative to name the plows, and there's been tremendous public reaction to that with a lot of interest, a lot a lot of fun. But it has a transparency element too because it makes people more likely to discover the site. We found that that particular feature has attracted all kinds of eyeballs and hits that it hadn't before just because of that naming initiative, so, I mean, going beyond the fun, it's actually helpful, right?

Geib: Oh, it is. Yes, exactly. There were so many creative names the public came up with, different people, you know, to bring more people to the site. I mean, that site, like you said, it literally shows where our plows are, and a lot of the plows have a camera, you know, a live camera in them. So, if you want to see what the condition is at a certain point, you can get on the Mi Drive site, click on it, you click on the little camera icon, and then you can actually see, more or less, what the driver is seeing. So, that helps people sort of understand. I think, too, you know, a lot of people are like, “Where's the plow?” Well, a plow can't be everywhere at the same time. Most of our plow routes are, you know, 30 to 35 miles long. With the truck traveling at 35 maybe 40 miles an hour, but probably more around 35, they can't be everywhere at once. They loop around and hit it as quick as they can, and then you can kind of see where they are. So, if you're wondering when they're going to get back to a certain area, you can get a good feel by going to that site, potentially.

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

Male Narrator: 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—

Female Narrator: Wait! I thought this was a snowplow safety message.

Male Narrator: It is, which is why this is relevant.

Female Narrator: Don't you think that's complicating things just a bit?

Male Narrator: Not at all. A snowplow weighs 17 times more than your average car.

Female Narrator: Right, and snowplows tend to travel at slower than posted speeds.

Male Narrator: So, the third law states that action and reaction are equal and opposite.

Female Narrator: 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.

Male Narrator: Well, if you're going to make it that simple, why don't you just say don't crowd the plow?

Female Narrator: Great idea. Stay safe this winter. Don't crowd the plow.

Male Narrator: That's it?

Female Narrator: Yeah, that's it.

Cranson: Let's talk about what you're facing this week. Specifically, today, we're recording Tuesday, February 1, and the storm is supposed to hit sometime tonight and pretty much continue through Wednesday into Thursday.

Geib: Yep.

Cranson: And then then be chased Friday with some, you know, arctic cold, so—

Geib: Right.

Cranson: You know, you guys monitor the forecasts, and the forecasts have become much better. So, I guess, how much credibility do you put in that? I mean, how much prep do you do based on the forecast, and what happens if you get ready and the big one doesn't come?

Geib: Well, there are times, especially with lake effect, when we can maybe think it's coming, and it doesn't come. Now, in this case, it looks like it's really coming. We're going to prepare regardless, so we're ready and if by chance it's less than what we thought it was going to be or, you know, drifts a little north or a little south or whatever then we're still ready. So, I mean, the bottom line is we communicate with everybody—our partners, all of our employees, you know, all the garages, keeping very good communication just with themselves, and they get fired up and ready. We make sure that the trucks are fueled up, the salts loaded up. We double check the trucks to make sure they're mechanically ready to go, and everybody is prepared. So, we get out, you know, and we watch it as it's coming, and as it's, you know, getting relatively close, we usually have one to two people out there per geographical area driving the roads actually seeing—getting some ground truth, you know, seeing if it's coming, and then we know when to get people on the road, so we don't have to get the trucks out there before they need to be. But we want to have them out there at the appropriate time to stay on top of it and do our very best to not let the, you know, snow build up on the road, especially to let the ice set up on the road. That's one of the things we work really hard to stay on top of, especially, like you mentioned, with cold weather coming on the heels of this. They're going to do everything they can to keep these roads clear, so when the cold weather portion hits and we don't have precipitation later in the week, we don't have patches of ice and stuff like that out there.

Cranson: So, you know, we've talked before about our contract with multiple counties. Probably 70 percent of the counties, meaning that the state-owned trunk lines, the I routes, the M routes, the U.S. routes, are actually maintained through those contracts. Tell us about that communication and coordination with the counties and why those partnerships are so valuable, you know, a good way to go in terms of economies of scale.

Geib: Right. Well, yeah, we have 63 county road commissions that work under contract for us and maintain our roads, which, of course, includes plowing the snow, treating the ice. Yeah, it's important. Well, first of all, they're already there working on their own county roads, so our roads go through their area. So, it's convenient for them to also be able to then do our roads and be responsive. And our roads, especially the interstates, are the highest priority because that's our primary trunk lines in the state. They know that and they do that. We talk to them as far as, I mean, all the snow routes are pre-planned, so everybody knows where they're going to be. When one area butts up against another area, there's a little bit of overlap to make sure everything's taken care of. And from time to time, we've borrowed salt from each other when needed. We've helped each other out depending on what the circumstances are. There was a time many, many years ago when one of the counties had a fire. They lost a lot of equipment, and we stepped up and loaned them equipment and people and made sure they could keep going. They've helped us out on various occasions too when things have happened. So, you know, in all of our communications with the with the various counties, we all understand we're serving the public. That's our top priority, so we partner in every possible way we can to make sure the that the roads are cleared and that we're keeping the public as safe as possible.

Cranson: Are those partnerships unique to Michigan? In talking to your colleagues and counterparts across the country that have a similar breakdown of, you know, state roads and then local roads, is what we do unique?

Geib: Well, what we do is unique. There's only one other state that contracts with their counties and that's the state of Wisconsin, right across Lake Michigan from us. And they do it a hundred percent. Their counties do all of their maintenance under contract for them. I like the model we have because, you know, we have our own garages and employees doing about 25, and then the counties do, you know, another 70 to 75 percent of the rest. Then we do have a couple of private contracts out there. It's nice to me to have a little bit of variability where you can help each other out if something comes up. We can step up and help the other side. Now, from talking to Wisconsin when I have in the past, it sounds like things work well there. Most other states, though, either have private contractors doing work, or they have their own direct forces doing work, or they have a blend of both. So, we have a little bit of everything. So, in a way, we're almost the most hybrid because we have some private, we have some direct forces, and we have contracts with our county partners.

Cranson: So, thinking about the storm that's coming and thinking about going into this season and concerns about having enough plow drivers and the difficulty hiring drivers of any kind, I think I saw a new story yesterday about the incredible shortage of truck drivers, and how that was going on before the pandemic and only got worse. How are we doing in terms of the direct force plow drivers? What are you hearing from the counties about their ability to hire drivers and, you know, train them and retain them? And then talk about anything else that you think might surprise people that you do in preparation for this kind of snow event.

Geib: Yeah, I mean, I’m not sure what I can share that would surprise people. We do in across the scale inspections of all of our snowplow trucks well before winter starts and really go over everything with a fine-tooth comb to make sure we're ready to go. We have backup vehicles. The hiring issue has been a problem. Some areas are not having any problem at all around the state. In fact, quite a few aren't but some are. And even where they are, it wasn't 100 percent. People were able to maybe get two-thirds of the additional help they needed, and that's been enough in our areas that are the most challenged for not getting people to still be able to do what they need to do. I think what in part is happening is that, you know, the employees are just stepping up and getting the job done, and they've always been that way. Our maintenance employees are really a tremendous asset. They're very resilient. They take dead serious what they're doing. They take a lot of ownership in what they're doing, and part of that is just their professionalism. Part of it is most of them work in the same area they live in, so their family and friends are in that area. They want to do a good job, so it gets done one way or the other. In some areas, we've gotten a little creative, and we'll have other employees that don't typically plow snow, but they have a CDL, a commercial driver's license, and then they'll do it when we're up against, you know, a really heavy demand. But so far, everybody's getting the job done fine, so I’m very comfortable we're going to again, even though this is going to be a well above average storm that's about to about to hit mid and southern Michigan.

Cranson: Yeah, we've already got some significant snow events this year in west Michigan, especially in the southwest Michigan snow belt, which you're very familiar with.

Geib: Yep.

Cranson: Yeah, and so far, it hasn't been a problem in terms of human resources.

Geib: Yep, that's exactly right. It's like I said, the drivers have just stepped up and gotten the work done. And we always have the ability, if you get into circumstances where you need more help with this storm, for instance, it's going to hit certain areas harder than other areas, and some areas it won't hit as you get further north. So, if we started getting behind the eight ball, they'd end up stepping up and helping us and bringing people down and/or equipment if needed. Again, that's how we've always worked. People are kind of there to help each other out, even if it's state and county and or vice versa, when absolutely needed, especially when it's something that potentially could put the public at risk. We're not going to let the public be put at risk.

Cranson: Yeah, even though a lot of this coordination is done at the region level, that's why it's so important that you and your staff at the statewide level have, you know, a good handle on what's going on.

Geib: Yep, that's correct.

Cranson: So, what else, Mark, as you prepare to ride into the sunset, or at least into new challenges, would you want to share about this work in particular? I mean, you've done a lot of different things at MDOT, but most of it has been on this, you know, maintenance thing, year-round, not just winter, obviously.

Geib: Yeah, my thoughts, you know, and I don't know if it's parting thoughts, but it's been the thoughts I’ve had anyway is that MDOT has a very strong culture of innovation. So, people are actively always looking for better ways to do things. One of the more recent examples is these three liquid-only pilots we have going on where instead of putting down rock salt, we're putting down a salt brine that's 23.3 percent salt. And the positives to that is the potential, as we fine-tune this, and we're going to—I shouldn't say if, it's going to be when we do, is to save 30 to 40 percent on salt usage and to get equal or slightly better level of service. That saves money because we average $25 to $30 million dollars a year in salt, so we can save 30 to 40 percent of that down the road if we continue to expand this, which I expect MDOT will be. That's a huge plus. The other piece to that is the environmental impact. There's more and more evidence that the, you know, salt levels have been slowly increasing in a lot of Michigan’s waterways, and that is a huge cut in how much salt we'd be putting into the environment, which is going to be environmentally very positive. So, that's one of the things that I want to be able to look back at every few years and see how that's progressing. And I think that's going to be a really great thing all the way around the block for the public and for the environment.

Cranson: Yeah, I think you're right. I think that thinking about that innovation and always on the lookout for new ideas and explaining to people, people within the organization, that you're training as they grow into their positions, and people outside in the public, who need to understand that it is all a balance. Just about everybody benefits. Even if you don't own a car, you take public transportation, you still use the roads and the local streets, and you need them to be clear and dry and safe. So, balancing that against the desire to protect the environment, like everything, it can be a challenge, but you and your staff are always thinking about it, and that's all we can ask, I guess.

Geib: Right, yep. No, absolutely. Even the fact that we do a pilot like this, and the potential is to possibly even, you know, melt the ice off slightly faster than we do already. And that's exciting because it's just going to be safer if we can get the road cleaned up a little bit quicker.

Cranson: Well said, Mark. Thanks. Good luck tonight and tomorrow as the storm hits. I know you guys done a lot of planning and prep, but I know it'll all pay off in the end. Good luck to you in your next endeavor.

Geib: Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Jeff. I really appreciate your words.


Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.