By Ted Roelofs/Bridge Magazine contributor
A few weeks ago, Grand Rapids TV station WZZM posted a request on its Facebook page: Tell us about about the worst roads in West Michigan.
Comments poured in.
An Ottawa County resident described James Street, a road near Holland, as “horrible, has been for a long time. Not only filled with potholes but way too much traffic for only 3 lanes.”
A woman grumbled that Old Grand Haven Road in Muskegon is “horrible and I have to take it every day to work.”
Then there was Sullivan Road in a rural area east of Muskegon.
“OMG,” wrote one of many to complain about this road. “I just went down Sullivan Road and the Township should be ashamed for how bad that road is … I am not proud to tell anyone I live here.”
“Avoid this road at all costs, but we have family that lives on this road and it is not safe on my car,” wrote another.
And a third: “Sullivan Rd is by far one of the worst roads I have ever traveled on it is unsafe for any vehicle!!! (unless you drive a tank).”
A few days after the comments rolled in, a road crew was dispatched to fill potholes on Sullivan. But this fix was temporary; the circumstances reflect, in microcosm, what confronts statewide policy leaders and motorists all around Michigan.
The need can be especially acute in rural townships that lack funds to fix even the worst of the worst, where the solution sometimes is to grind up the road and call the resulting gravel surface good. Thirty-eight counties in Michigan pulverized 100 miles of roads in 2009 because they didn’t have money to maintain them, according to the County Road Association of Michigan.
Muskegon County Road Commission maintenance superintendent Laurie Peterson concedes that Sullivan Road is “bad. But it’s not the worst road in the county. We have some roads we can’t patch anymore.”
On a road-condition scale used across the state, Sullivan Road rates a 2 or 3, Peterson said. A 2 is “failed” and a 3 is “poor to fair and in need of structural renewal,” she said.
A 1 is “totally failed.”
That would be Brickyard Road northeast of Muskegon in rural Holton Township. It is a sketchy maze of potholes, fissures and crumbling shoulder.
“We patch it and it just gets kicked out. We just can’t patch it anymore. We do the best we can,” Peterson said.
But Township Treasurer Bill Halbower said there are worse than Brickyard.
A few years back, a two-mile asphalt stretch of adjacent Brunswick Road got so bad it couldn’t be fixed. The township didn’t have the $300,000 needed to fund a new surface. Three times, voters turned down a millage to improve township roads.
“They just tore it out,” Halbower said. “Ground it up and put it back on the road.”
Township resident Donna Frey lives at the intersection of the two. She considers Brickyard a virtual gem next to Brunswick.
Told of the rating system, Frey gives Brunswick Road a “minus 1. Honestly, we don’t classify it as a road. We call it a dirt trail. There’s no gravel. It’s just mud and potholes.”
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.