As the managing director of the largest county road system in Michigan for the last 17 years, Brent Bair continues to steer the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) despite being faced with flat revenues since 1998 and declining revenues for the past five years. Bair heads up the second largest system of adaptive traffic signals in the nation, is widely respected as a leading expert on road funding in Michigan, and has been an outspoken advocate of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and ITS funding. He is a founding member and past president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of Michigan. He worked in the insurance industry prior to obtaining his Ph.D. in civil engineering. He worked part-time as a consultant on transportation planning and highway accident investigation and reconstruction prior to joining the RCOC in 1977 as the road commission’s transportation planning coordinator. When the RCOC began facing problems with its liability insurance, Bair stepped in as a risk management program coordinator in charge of developing the agency’s innovative highway risk management program. Safety was made the agency’s No. 1 priority, and Bair lead the road commission in improving road and employee safety. He later became director of the Planning & Development Department and was soon after promoted to deputy managing director. In January 1993 he was appointed managing director. One of Bair’s notable accomplishments has been RCOC’s FAST-TRAC adaptive signal ITS deployment project. He also initiated the Southeastern Michigan Snow and Ice Management (SEMSIM) project, which ultimately involved the deployment of ITS equipment on the 500 winter road maintenance vehicles operated by the four largest road agencies in southeast Michigan. He has served on many boards and committees, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s transportation transition team. Granholm also appointed him to the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for the state’s Transportation Funding Task Force. Bair and his wife live in Independence Township.
SCN: You’ve been getting a lot of flack for the RCOC’s storm clean up on Dec. 12 and have been berated for not performing up to par with other counties in the region. Some have even gone so far as to imply that the RCOC is sacrificing safety to make a political point that it needs more dollars to operate. In retrospect, was there anything you could have done differently, and how do you respond to that implication?
BB: First of all, we’re not the only county that is taking a beating because of that. Wayne and Macomb counties have heard the same thing. We got hit with a unique storm, if you will. It started out with rain that saturated the pavement, then wet snow, then sudden freezing, down to single digits to where salt didn’t work. So there was very little once it reached that point that we could do about it. People may have noticed that in the daytime during the next two days, things got a lot better. Why? Because the sun came out — particularly, the temperatures went above 20 degrees and the salt started working. That’s all it took.
Did we cut back on service and would we do things differently to make a point about our funding situation? Absolutely not. Safety has been our No. 1 priority since 1978 and we will not deviate from that. Partially a good deal because of our efforts, Oakland County has one of the lowest fatality rates in the world for an area our size and population. We want to keep it that way.
Could we have done anything differently? Well we looked at that. Our maintenance department has gone through it and identified 12 different things we might have done a little differently, but would we have changed the outcome of Dec. 12? No. The normal storm that we anticipate is one that we get dumped on, it continues a day or two and with lower staffing it will take us a little bit longer to get the roads cleared, but we normally don’t anticipate a storm like that one where it starts out as rain then freezes down to single digits.
In addition, when they say we were doing this just to try to get more money — no single county can impact or affect the funding level on a statewide basis. All road agencies — city, village, RCOC, and MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation) — are hurting for funds right now and one single county can’t do anything to change that because the funding comes out of the Legislature.
SCN: What about staffing in a storm — how big is your fleet and were there enough drivers on the roads to do an adequate job?
BB: We have 106 salt runs which requires, obviously, 106 salt trucks. We have enough drivers to man all those trucks at any one time. When those 106 drivers reach their 16-hour limit and have to take time off to rest, then we don’t have as many drivers to climb into the trucks that we used to have, but that wasn’t the situation on Dec. 12. We had what we needed to do the job, only we couldn’t do the job because of the temperatures.
SCN: Do you typically deploy all of your fleet when there is a snowstorm like the one that hit the region recently?
BB: It depends. You can have storms that affect the county differently than the other. So each of the main districts makes a call out for their district depending on what what’s going on in their particular area. We’ve had storms go right through the middle of the county, where north of the area, there are no problems; in the south part of the county, it’s not a problem; but through the middle, it’s a real problem. So you can’t say universally it’s always this or that. It depends on what’s going on.
SCN: What is protocol for severe weather clean up right now, such as what roads are given top priority?
BB: We have maintenance guidelines that indicate the highest-volume/highest-speed roads are always addressed first. Since we’re under contract with MDOT, that obviously includes the interstates and freeways, I-75, 696, 96, M-59, so on. Also, many of the main roads — Telegraph, Orchard Lake, Southfield, they’re all critical runs. Secondary roads come next, and the last, unfortunately, are the subdivision streets.
SCN: We hear a lot of commentary that road agencies such as the RCOC are struggling financially, and even Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson has said that’s true. Please explain how your dollars are used and the magnitude of the problems you’re facing.
BB: First let me say, we don’t receive property tax revenues. If anybody looks on their property tax statement, they may find the county listed, but we are not part of the county. You won’t find the RCOC listed. Our principal source of operating money to buy salt and trucks and provide routine maintenance, like winter maintenance, is the state-collected gas tax and vehicle registration fees or license plate fees. Our revenues from those two sources are down 5 percent from 10 years ago, and yet what we’re paying for salt is up 2.5 times from what we paid 10 years ago. What we pay for fuel is up 2.5 times from what we paid 10 years ago. A lot of other construction costs like asphalt, etc., has gone up dramatically. So revenues have gone down, costs have gone up and something’s got to give. In our case, we’re not able to fill vacant positions so we’re down as of today about 118 employees from the 2007 level.
SCN: How is the RCOC exploring other ways to glean more dollars?
BB: In terms of operating dollars, there’s no other place to go, frankly. Some counties have a countywide millage. We don’t think that would fly here, but they use a countywide millage to supplement what they get from the state.
Frankly, the Legislature is the only place we can go. We’ve gone to the Legislature over the last several years — there’s no interest in raising our revenues, so our services are going down.
SCN: You recently deferred a proposed raise increase for non-union employees back to road commission administration to look at the issue with more scrutiny. Have you decided if in fact your managerial and administrative staff will be getting a raise in line with what union employees were granted last year? How can you justify raises when your funding is declining?
BB: No such decision has been made. Remember this refers to non-representative employees which includes not just me, but our human resources department. which includes secretaries, etc.; our entire legal department which includes secretaries, etc.; design squad leaders who sit down and design road projects for construction projects next year — people who have absolutely nothing to do with winter maintenance. These people, along with all of our union people, went three years without a pay increase and then got a 1 percent increase last year. What was in line for the non-representative employees was to get the same amount this year that the union negotiated. That’s what is under consideration at this point.
SCN: Funding is down, yet costs are rising. What changes have you made to try and get better cost savings on equipment, salt, etc.
BB: You mentioned equipment first. One, we aren’t replacing equipment. We’re not replacing trucks and graders because we don’t have the money to do it, which means our fleet is getting older and breaking down more frequently, which means they’re not available to be on the road when we’re hit with a storm. I already mentioned we don’t have the funding to replace people when they retire. So now we’re down 118 employees. That puts us down 110 people less than we had in 1974. At our highest level in 2007, we had only eight more people than we had in 1974. How can we do that with how Oakland County has grown? Frankly, we have privatized more and more of our work. We didn’t lay anyone off but we didn’t add anyone, either. So we simply diverted the workers to other activities because there’s always more work to do than we have people. We’re looking at more privatizing in the future.
SCN: Anything you did differently with salt this year?
BB: For the last several years we’ve been using our tanker trucks to spread brine, saltwater we take out of our wells, on gravel roads for dust control, and we’ve used them on our roadways as an anti-icing agent. We put a coat of brine down before the snow starts to stick to the pavement. We now have equipment that sprays brine into the salt out of the basket of the salt trucks to make it work faster. We have computerized salt spreaders so they go with the speed of the truck, so when a truck comes to a stop, the section of the spreader stops so we’re not laying down a pile of salt at intersections. We have tracking and fleet management equipment where we can tell where our trucks are at anytime of the day and what they’re doing, where they’ve been and which roads they’ve plowed and salted and which ones they have not. We’re using state of the art equipment on about everything and we’re about to try another type of equipment where the salt truck is equipped with a larger tank for brine and laying down brine instead of a salt/brine mixture, but also putting down the salt/brine mixture that the normal salt trucks do. We’re exploring all kinds of things.
SCN: How about projects for the next five years. What lakes area roads and bridges can our readers expect to be worked on during this time period.
BB: There are two in your readership area for 2011, and both are in Commerce Township: one being the roundabout at M-5 and Pontiac Trail; and a resurfacing project on Commerce Road from South Commerce to Union Lake.
SCN: Have you had to redline projects?
BB: Not yet. We’re looking at next year which, is Fiscal Year 2012, which starts Oct. 1, and our ability to match federal funds. MDOT already had a problem this year matching federal funds and borrowed money to go out and do it. We’re reaching that point next year. We may have to delay projects because we just don’t have the match. By the way, federal funds are 80 percent federal, 20 percent local, and we pick up half of the local, 10 percent, and ask the communities to pick up the other 10 percent.
SCN: How do you determine which projects are a priority and which ones can wait — is it always about costs or is safety a primary factor?
BB: Let’s start with the big projects — the federal-aid projects for widening, etc. We have to apply for federal funds and compete with the cities for federal funds and there’s an objective point system that is used by the committee that determines which ones get funded. That point system has safety as the highest or next highest point-getter, if you will. So safety is a big factor in selecting projects in this county. Part of the reason we have the low fatality rate we have now is because for the past 30 years we’ve been selecting major projects based on a safety criteria. In terms of other work, normal resurfacing, etc., we have a rating system where we go out and rate the condition of the pavement and we do those that need the work first as opposed to any other criteria. But I will add that because of our funding, we’re not spending our money, 100 percent money, on resurfacing anymore. The pavement is getting worse. The only new resurfacing going down is primarily where we get some different federal funds for resurfacing and I calculate it will take us 143 years to get around the federal aid system with the federal funds we get for that.