Dennis Kolar has taken over as the new managing director of the Road Commission for Oakland County, now that former managing director Brent Bair opted to retire. Kolar’s experience in the road field spans 32 years. He began his career with the Michigan Department of Transportation, where he was employed for six years. After joining the RCOC, he spent 11 years in the Engineering Department’s Design Division, starting as a staff engineer and serving as a design squad leader before being promoted to design engineer in charge of the division. Following his service in the Design Division, Kolar transferred to the RCOC Highway Maintenance Department, where he spent six years as the maintenance operations engineer before being promoted to director of the RCOC’s Central Operations Department. He was then promoted to the deputy managing director position. Kolar is a registered professional engineer and holds a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering from Lawrence Technological University. He is a current member of the American Public Works Association and the Transportation Research Board, where he served eight years on the Maintenance and Operations Management Committee.
What are some of your priorities as the new managing director of the RCOC?
DK: The priorities are certainly safety. It’s our No. 1 priority and it’s been that (way) for years, (focusing on) safety for motorists on the roads and employee safety. And we want to continue the agency’s lead and efforts like on our FAST-TRAC signals, connected vehicle program, our advances in winter maintenance so to keep us moving forward, eyes being on the cutting edge in the road industry. One of my efforts here early on is talking to the employees about (the motto of) “one customer at a time.” Being a public road agency, we aren’t always looked upon the best by the public and, for us to change that, we need to make our interactions with the public as positive as we can. Sometimes we’re pretty good at saying what we can’t do, (and) we need to learn to tell the public what we can do.
It is common knowledge that road agencies such as the RCOC are struggling financially. Please explain how your dollars are used and the magnitude of the problems you’re facing, including staff cutbacks.
DK: We can start with staff cutbacks. I believe we’re right at 129 vacancies, compared to fiscal year 2007. We are struggling staff-wise. At least 50 of those (vacancies) would be truck drivers for winter maintenance. It will have an effect on long-term or long duration storms. We can still attack a storm initially with 106 vehicles, but if we have a long duration then we don’t have as many people to put back in trucks after they use up their 16 hours. That’s an issue.
Funding-wise, our funding is over 4 percent down from 1999, so if you look at how everything has increased since 1999 — (cost) increases in metal and salt, vehicles — it’s pretty challenging to put together a budget. We have to have a balanced one, so our priorities remain to have a staff as much as we can. We’ve sacrificed — I’m not buying any road equipment. We haven’t bought road equipment or dump trucks for 4 years, and we’ve cut back on projects that we would fund 100 percent. Years back, we would overlay certain sections of road or do small projects. Now we use our funding to match federal aid and that gives us our biggest return; we can spend 10 cents and get 90 cents back. Those have been our focuses.
Gov. Snyder continues to say that transportation changes are needed and has suggested increasing vehicle registration fees and eliminating the 19-cent gas tax motorists pay at the pump in favor of a tax on the wholesale price of fuel. What do you think of these options?
DK: Well, certainly registration fees and anything that deals with the use of gasoline is probably the right way — that becomes a user fee and that’s traditionally what the gas tax is. The problem with what he’s trying to do, as I see it, is with the shift to the wholesale price is revenue neutral. The only increase is coming from the registration fees. I think that will be tough, to get through to raise registration fees by $120.
A trio of bills have been introduced in the state Senate to change the state’s road funding system. If passed, voters may see the initiative on the 2012 general election ballot, including a 1 percent sales tax on retailers’ gross taxable sales of tangible personal property beginning in 2012, with the revenue dedicated to the state comprehensive transportation fund. How would this impact the RCOC given that state revenues, derived primarily from the state-collected fuel taxes and vehicle-registration fees, are the RCOC’s largest source of funding?
DK: What I have seen on this bill is that it really is revenue neutral. I know the Senate Fiscal Agency says $800 million more, but again we’re not solving the problem with a bill like this. Certainly we’d like to see an increase, but we feel it would be better off if there was a user fee like the gas tax and we’ve been working on a way called the “mileage-based user fee” where folks would pay for the miles they travel. That’s truly a user fee. If you go to a sales tax, then that’s not a user fee — everybody pays the same, no matter how much you use the infrastructure. That’s really not what it was based on with the gas tax.
Here in Oakland County, we’ve experienced a light winter so far, but we know we’ll be dumped on with snow at some point. How big is your snow plow and salt truck fleet and are there enough drivers on the roads to do an adequate job when snowy weather arrives?
DK: Yes. We have about 135 dump trucks that are ready and, like I had mentioned before, we have about 106 salt runs, what we call full coverage, and can put 106 people in those trucks for 16 hours, when they are required to take a break. Again, that’s when our level of service would fall a little bit because we don’t have as many replacement drivers as we once had. You’re right, we’ve been asked what we are going to do with the savings from the winter, and I like to point out that I’ve been in this business long enough (to know) that winters have a way of evening out a little bit. But should we recognize a savings from the winter, we would certainly look at trying to augment or buy some equipment because, like I said, we haven’t bought a dump truck in 4 years and probably increase our materials on gravel roads, some of those sorts of things. But we’re not expecting a windfall from the light winter — let’s put in that way.
What is the protocol for severe weather clean-up, such as what roads are given top priority?
DK: It’s based on their traffic volumes. We have a pretty expansive book called our “Winter Maintenance Guidelines,” where we have critical runs that have certain volume of how many vehicles use that road, and those are the routes we hit first. So we would start with the interstates, if you will, I-696, I-75 or Telegraph, Lapeer Road, or some of heavily traveled roads like Southfield, 12 Mile Road, things like that. We’d be out there first — that’s our first plan of attack. Then once those runs are clean, we move on to the lower tiers like local roads.
Since funding is down and costs are rising, what changes do you hope to make to get better cost savings on equipment, salt, etc.?
DK: We’ve been in, let’s not say financial straits, but the RCOC has had to watch their dollars for years, so over the course of time we’ve privatized more than people realize. We no longer do asphalt overlay. We do our own concrete repair, major tree removal, sweeping, some of our mowing — the list goes on and on. We continue to look at that. When we see an operation might be better performed by an outside contractor for savings, we’ll do that. In regards to salt, we’ve already gathered a number of small communities and we get together and bid (for) salt as a group and realize the savings through the larger volume of salt we have on our bid. There are some communities like Southfield, Troy, Novi, that have chosen to provide winter maintenance on road commission streets in their city. We let them do that and we pay them to do that in a lump sum because they want to provide a higher level of service. There’s lots of things we’ve done over the course of years. If you just look at from the 1970s how much that the road network expanded and we added 6 to 8 people from the 1970s until the late 1990s, so we always look at privatizing where we can.
What other changes are you considering to address the county’s current and future road needs?
DK: I wouldn’t say radical changes. We’re always on the cutting edge, whether it’s new traffic signal technology, construction materials. It’s just what we do — it’s our culture. As far as anything earth shattering, I can’t tell you that. We’re always looking to be efficient and always looking for ways to construct roads better and faster. It’s just what we do everyday.
How about projects over the next five years? What lakes area roads and bridges can our readers expect to be worked on during this time period?
DK: We have Cooley Lake Road from Duck Lake to Havenwood. That’s a pave/gravel road that will be happening a little later this year. This spring we’ll be starting on Commerce (Road) from South Commerce and Union Lake (roads), one that will probably create some traffic problems. There’s Pontiac Trail in Walled Lake from Maple to South Commerce. That one, we’ll be replacing all of the concrete. It will be quite challenging, traffic-wise. We’re starting to work on 12 Mile back to Dixon–that’s a widening project way out in the future, but starting the engineering on that. In Novi, we have a project on Grand River from Novi (Road) to Haggerty. That will start back up this spring. Finally, we’ll be continuing to work on plans for a roundabout at 14 Mile Road and Orchard Lake (Road) and Northwestern (Highway).
House Bills 5125 and 5126 state that the powers, duties and functions for an appointed board of county road commissioners may be transferred to the county Board of Commissioners via resolution. Legislators, as well as Oakland County commissioners, have said they don’t see that happening in Oakland County. Do you see the legislation as a real threat to the RCOC’s autonomy?
DK: That’s a tough one when you say “real threat.” Well there’s always a threat if the county board was given that authority. It’s not a threat right now. We have a good relationship with the county Executive (L. Brooks Patterson) and county commissioners and we intend on keeping it that way. I just think that bill, I’m not sure what it’s trying to accomplish. If the angle were to save money, I don’t see any money savings generated. Obviously we don’t support the bill, but the County Road Association of Michigan has been trying to work with the legislators to get some language in there so counties know what they’re doing, have an audit done on a road commission. In Oakland, we have $20 million worth of equipment that’s passed its useful life, if you will. If Oakland County were to take us over that would be a big liability that they would immediately absorb. My feeling is this bill is an attempt for the state to push funding of roads to the local level because, if county governments now have the road duties, then the state Legislature can say, “Why don’t you just raise your property tax or have a millage and fund your own roads,” and then Lansing doesn’t haven’t to worry about funding local roads. That’s what I think is behind that bill.
We understand that one of your passions is to buy classic cars and restore them. Please share what cars you’ve worked on and restored over the years.
DK: Well right now I’m working on a full-body restoration of a 1964 Corvette Coupe — that’s my latest. I’ve done a handful over the years. I have a 1991 Dodge Stealth and also a 1989 Corvette convertible. There’s been a bunch over the years. I probably can’t name them all. It keeps me out of trouble.