Michigan has many hidden treasures among its local road system, including winding, hilly roads that offer gorgeous views of the Great Lakes, inland waterways and valleys.
But Michigan also has some special roads that most residents can’t see and haven’t thought about: roads running across islands.
Of Michigan’s 120,000-mile road network, a surprising 300 miles run across islands that have vehicles and year-round residents.
And maintaining island roads in the winter is a special situation altogether, in some cases relying on a single county road commission who has no back-up and limited supplies and equipment.
The challenges of maintaining island roads this winter including the equipment and staffing concerns is likely to keep Robert Laitinen, Chippewa County Road Commission superintendent and manager, up at night.
Laitinen is responsible for Drummond Island, Neebish Island and Sugar Island. All three islands amass more than 300 inches of snow annually.
“Employees have a hard time having any sort of private life,” said Laitinen. “If there is any sort of weather event or call-out, we can’t share that call-out with anyone or have anyone else cover their overtime. They are the only ones on that island when the ferries don’t run in winter.”
Charlevoix County Road Commission, Chippewa County Road Commission, and St. Clair County Road Commission are three of several counties that have island roads.
They share their challenges in the new fall issue of Crossroads, the quarterly journal of the County Road Association of Michigan.
The St. Clair County Road Commission maintains Harsens Island in Lake St. Clair with one employee, over 25 road miles and over 1,000 residents.
Access to Harsens is difficult when in the throes of winter and the St. Clair County Road Commission sometimes calls on the Coast Guard for assistance.
“Access to the island is the biggest challenge, especially during times of ice floe,” said Kirk Weston, managing director of St. Clair County Road Commission. “There are times when the river will block off and we will have to wait for the Coast Guard to open it back up to get through.”
Chippewa County faces similar challenges during the winter season.
Neebish Island, covering over 21 square miles, has a standard truck and a spare truck for back-up due to seasonal shutdown of the ferry services.
If necessary, a snowmobile is used to transport smaller items to Neebish.
Even in warmer weather, island roads pose a unique challenge to road commissions.
In Chippewa County, marine companies are hired to transport equipment over 50,000 pounds because the Neebish Island ferry can’t accommodate it.
Transit companies are also utilized to bring a larger ferry from Drummond to Neebish, to move big items such as gravel crushers.
In winter, Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan at 55 square miles, receives its supplies from the sky because access is only possible by plane from January through March.
Weight restrictions still play a role in the air and some items need to be disassembled and reassembled to fit in an airplane.
The best tactic to prepare for winter is to get any and all equipment to the island before winter ever hits, according to the Charlevoix County Road Commission, which tends to Beaver Island roads.
“All your winter supplies have to be at the island before winter: Spare tires, plows, blades. We always fill the fuel tank before winter—a 10,000 gallon tank gets us through winter,” said Charlevoix County Road Commission manager Patrick Harmon. “The logistics of getting anything there makes it much more costly than a typical road.”
Despite the obstacles, all three county road commissions make their seasonal challenges work for them.
Through the efforts of hardworking county road commission staff, residents of these islands and other Michigan islands can drive year-round to visit family and friends, attend medical appointments, shop and get to work.
The 83 members of the County Road Association represent the unified credible and effective voice for a safe and efficient local road system in Michigan, collectively managing more than 73 percent of all roads in the state—more than 90,000 miles and 5,700 bridges—the fourth-largest county road system in the nation.