How MI’s county road agencies deal with pandemic

According to Rob Laitinen, superintendent/manager of the Chippewa County Road Commission (CCRC), Chippewa County’s first case of COVID-19 came in through the airport. That’s when the pandemic became real for CCRC.

“The spouse of one of our operators is a TSA agent at the airport,” Laitinen said. “I was approached by other employees asking me to not allow [the operator] back into the workplace. On the onset, we had imposed more strict rules, but with that occurrence, and the occurrence of a case at the Kinross Correctional facility, we really made some serious decisions.”

CCRC isn’t the only county road agency that made changes due to the pandemic. Road workers remained on the job throughout the pandemic, but all 83 counties made adjustments to their operations during this unprecedented time.

Almost all road agencies closed their offices to the public, and many were dispatching operations staff from remote locations and having those whose responsibilities could be done from home to work there, among other practices. Increased sanitation has been the priority, and many employees are assigned the same piece of equipment or vehicle each day to reduce the spread of germs.

“The Kent County Road Commission [KCRC] is prepared to respond to the unexpected, but the situation surrounding COVID-19 is like nothing we have experienced before,” Steve Warren, KCRC managing director, said in April. “We continue to adjust the deployment of employees, equipment and material. This includes staggering work schedules, providing employees with resources to work from home, aligning PPE and practices with CDC and county health department guidelines, and focusing operations on ‘mission critical’ activities.”

Not only did the pandemic affect day-to-day operations, it’s also affecting future projects. Road agencies are experiencing a significant hit to the Michigan Transportation Fund’s gas tax and wondering how long the decline will linger.

“[Wayne County’s] 2020 road improvement plan is currently being reviewed and prioritized in an effort to be proactive in the event that the consequences of the virus require changes,” said Beverly Watts, director of the Wayne County Department of Public Services (WCDPS) – Roads Division. “But the employees of the County of Wayne are seasoned professionals who always rise high when needed, no matter the circumstances.”

Despite the challenges road agencies faced, spirits remained high during the pandemic.

In Kalamazoo County, the Road Commission of Kalamazoo County (RCKC) sees opportunity for growth in the future during these difficult times.

“We are learning every day and finding ways to make a challenging issue a positive story,” Joanna Johnson, RCKC managing director, said. “We anticipate some of what we are doing now to change the way we do business in the future. Leadership and innovation have the greatest opportunity to move us forward.”

To learn more about how county road agencies adjusted their operations during the pandemic, read the latest edition of Crossroads, the quarterly journal of the County Road Association (CRA) of Michigan, which can be viewed digitally or downloaded at https://micountyroads.org/newsroom/crossroads/.

The 83 members of the County Road Association of Michigan represent the unified voice for a safe and efficient county transportation infrastructure system in Michigan, including appropriate stewardship of the public’s right-of-way in rural and urban Michigan.  Collectively, Michigan’s county road agencies manage 75 percent of all roads in the state, including 90,000 miles of roads and 5,700 bridges. County road agencies also maintain the state’s highway system in 64 counties. Michigan has the nation’s fourth-largest local road system.

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