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Economy & competitive position/Public sector

Bad roads throw up barriers to farmers, auto firms, tourists

Better than most, Cass County resident Cliff Poehlman understands how bad roads raise the cost of doing business.

Poehlman farms about 2,000 acres of corn, wheat and alfalfa in southwestern Michigan. He is also a 22-year veteran of the Cass County Road Commission.

In recent years, Poehlman said, the commission has been forced to issue permits to farmers to trim brush and trees from the sides of secondary roads because it could not afford the maintenance. That meant farmers were left to do work once done by road commission crews.

“The secondary roads are growing shut so far we can’t hardly get down it with our equipment. They used to trim it back. Now they don’t have the funds to do that.

“It makes it real hard to get into some of our fields.”

Transportation officials say bad roads cost motorists about $370 a year in added repair expenses.

Business advocates say they add untold millions of dollars more in transportation costs, delivery delays and other expenses.

A 2010 study by Anderson Economic Group concluded that substandard roads could threaten three key industries in Michigan: agriculture, tourism and manufacturing.

In particular, the report noted that “bottlenecks and delays on Michigan’s trunkline road system due to excess construction, accidents from poor road conditions and inadequate capacity could result in persistent disadvantages for some manufacturing businesses in the state.”

In his recent State of the State Address, Gov. Rick Snyder referred to the automotive (manufacturing) industry, agriculture and tourism as the “Big 3” helping lead Michigan’s economic comeback.

Richard Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, noted that General Motors has a manufacturing plant just two blocks from his office in Lansing.

“They rely on just-in-time delivery. At times, that calls for materials to be delivered to the plant in 15-minute windows. As that truck is stalled in traffic due to congestion or road repairs, you can bring that plant to a halt in just an hour or two.”

The Center for Automotive Research estimated that delays at the 83-year-old Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge into Canada can cost auto manufacturers $40,000 to $140,000 an hour. That and similar data help drive the state’s push to build a new $2 billion bridge crossing into Canada, a project that may not be completed for seven years.

The Chamber backs plans by Snyder to boost transportation funding by $1.2 billion, a measure it believes will add jobs and boost business.

“It’s really, from a Chamber of Commerce perspective, all about jobs and the economy,” Studley said.

Matt Smego, legislative counsel of the Michigan Farm Bureau, said farmers are more reliant on the entire road network than other industries since they depend on secondary as well as primary roads.

“We have to be able to move farmers’ products to and from the market,” he said.

He recalled a farmer forced to deal with a closed bridge over a nearby creek.

“He had to take his farm equipment an additional five miles just to get to his farm,” he said.

Studley is concerned that substandard roads also could undermine tourism, especially when visitors arrive on a road network ranked second worst in the nation by a trucking publication.

“There is no sense to bringing in visitors from out of state or out of the country and then putting them on third-class roads where they have a bone-rattling, teeth-jarring experience.”

Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

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