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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2014/04/michigan-roads-now-among-nations-worst/

Economy & competitive position

Michigan roads now among nation’s worst

“It’s easy to see why people say we have the worst roads in the country. We put the least amount of emphasis on roads.” – Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Driving on I-196 in Ottawa County, Roger Safford commented that the highway didn’t seem all that bad, at least not by Michigan’s standards.

“This is the kind of pavement that, on its surface, looks pretty good,” said Safford, an engineer in charge of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Grand Rapids region. “Looks can be deceiving. Underneath, it’s subject to failure.”

Minutes later, he showed what failure looks like as he dodged wide cracks and potholes on a stretch of U.S. 131, a stretch typical of thousands more miles of Michigan’s highways, streets and roads.

This spring is expected to bring the worst potholes in years, but the problem runs much deeper than a seasonal bump in the road. Decades of underfunding have left Michigan’s highways, streets and roads among the worst in the nation, with no guarantee lawmakers will approve funding for their repair. One thing’s for sure: The longer Michigan waits to fix its roads, the more expensive the fix will eventually become for its residents.

“That’s what keeps me up at night, wondering, what kind of system are we leaving our children and grandchildren?” Safford said. “We can’t build it and walk away. Sometimes that’s what I feel like we’re doing. It really comes down to pay now or pay later. The fix just gets a little more expensive every year.”

Safford said that when he hears people complain that Michigan’s roads aren’t nearly as well-maintained as Ohio’s, he has a quick response: “Ohio spends a billion dollars a year more on their system than we do.”

Poor prognosis

Even before this past winter, one-third of Michigan’s state highways and major county and local roads were rated in poor condition, according to a study that will be presented to the state legislature in May. Forty-eight percent were rated fair, and only 19 percent were deemed in good condition. (That report is not yet online, but the 2012 annual report is here.)

Since 2004, the percentage of Michigan’s roads in good and fair condition has steadily declined, while those in poor condition have been on the rise. One in eight bridges in the state are structurally deficient, worse than in any other Great Lakes state.

Some highway overpasses in Grand Rapids and Detroit are in such dreadful shape that MDOT has installed sheets of plywood between the beams to protect vehicles from falling concrete. Earlier this year, MDOT closed an overpass in Auburn Hills until it could be repaired. Here and there along Michigan’s freeways, overpasses have been shored up temporarily with steel posts.

Even at that, the state’s bridges are in better shape than its roads.

“It’s easy to see why people say we have the worst roads in the country,” Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said. “We put the least amount of emphasis on roads.”

Of the 50 states, Michigan spends the least per capita on its roads and bridges, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. Michigan spends $174 per person annually on transportation. Illinois and Ohio each spend $235. Minnesota spends $315.

Michigan motorists pay for the state’s substandard roads in other ways, studies show.

Some highway overpasses in Grand Rapids and Detroit are in such dreadful shape that MDOT has installed sheets of plywood between the beams to protect vehicles from falling concrete.

Each year, the poor condition of Michigan’s roads costs state residents $7.7 billion in additional vehicle operating costs, wasted fuel, lost time and traffic accidents, according to a January report by TRIP, a national transportation research group. That adds up to $1,600 for the average Detroit-area driver each year, $1,032 for the average Lansing-area driver and $1,027 for each Grand Rapids-area motorist, TRIP found.

The average Michigan motorist spends $357 a year on blown tires, bent rims and other repairs due to bad roads, TRIP estimated.

Inferior roads come with another cost that can’t be measured in dollars: If Michigan significantly increased its investment in roadway safety features, such as adding rumble strips and turn lanes, it could avoid nearly 100 traffic fatalities each year, TRIP estimated.

“The extent of needed roadway safety improvements made in the state over the next decade will have a significant impact on the number of people killed in crashes on Michigan’s roadways,” TRIP wrote in 2012.

Traffic fatalities were even higher and the roads in worse shape before 1997 when state lawmakers and former Gov. John Engler approved a 4-cents-per-gallon increase in the fuel tax, the last time it was raised. Road conditions improved considerably over the next seven years, but business leaders and the Snyder administration say the 4-cent boost was not enough to keep them in good repair.

That’s partly because motorists are driving more fuel-efficient cars, reducing revenues from the fuel tax, while the cost of construction materials has increased dramatically.

As a result, the quality of Michigan’s roads is “on a steep decline right now,” Steudle said. “At some point we’re going to be where we were back in 1996.”

Snyder effort goes nowhere

In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder asked the Legislature to increase highway funding by $1.2 billion a year through a combination of higher fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. But those requests did not pass the Legislature. Each year lawmakers delay, the cost of repairing the roads rises by an estimated $100 million.

In March, the Legislature approved a stopgap $215 million appropriation for road improvements, including $100 million to reimburse state and local road agencies for the increased cost of clearing roads this past winter and $115 million for pet projects favored by individual lawmakers.

Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley posted a Tweet calling that amount “pathetic… One time supplemental for snow removal and cold patch (is) not a permanent solution to fix Mich roads. Anemic.”

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg,” Studley said later.

Snyder’s latest proposal is for $1.3 billion a year in higher fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, but, so far, not a single legislator in the Republican-controlled House or Senate has agreed to introduce the bill.

In what’s become a common refrain, Republican Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons recently told a Grand Rapids gathering the state Department of Transportation had not made its case for more money.

But a legislatively created agency, the state Transportation Asset Management Council, said the $1.3 billion sought by Snyder might not be enough.

The Legislature created the council in 2002 to advise the state Transportation Commission, which oversees MDOT, on the condition of Michigan’s roads and the most efficient way to fix them. The council is governed by 10 state and local officials, all with an interest in seeing the roads improved.

Beginning each spring and into the fall, three-person teams of specially trained state and local transportation officials spread out across Michigan’s 120,000 miles of roads.

The three evaluate each section of pavement on a scale of one to 10 and enter that information into a laptop computer. A rating of one to three is poor and in need of a complete rebuild. Four to seven is fair, meaning the road needs maintenance to slow the deterioration. Eight to 10 is good, calling for routine maintenance. The teams enter the data into a computer, which spits out a recommendation on the best use of whatever money is available.

In the past, MDOT and local road agencies took a “worst-first” approach, spending more money rebuilding the poorest roads. The past decade or so, the emphasis has shifted to an “asset management” approach, spending more to keep good roads in that condition and keeping fair roads from slipping to poor.

The cost of returning a poor road to good condition is nearly five times as expensive as maintaining a fair road, the Asset Management Council said in its last annual report.

“At current funding levels, the condition of Michigan’s transportation infrastructure will continue to deteriorate,” the council warned. “This alarming decline in the condition of Michigan’s infrastructure affects everyone,” including businesses, tourists and residents.

Bringing more of Michigan’s roads up to good and fair condition would require spending more than the $1.3 billion in Snyder’s latest proposal, a state House transportation work group concluded a year ago.

“I just know we can’t live year to year,” said Steudle, the state transportation director. “That’s not the way to maintain a highway system. At the end of the day, we’re getting the road system we’re paying for.”

Editor’s note: Check back for part 2 of “Rough Road Ahead” on Thursday.

Mike Wilkinson of Bridge produced the charts for this report.

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

30 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. ***

    It’s that “t” word that sends shivers down the spine of legislators who worry how their vote to increase funding for roads will
    play with voters when their opponents in an election run TV ads against them, its much easier to pretend there is not a problem and just keep putting off making a serious decision.

  2. dlb333

    When will the Michigan legislature realize that action needs to be taken? We need to increase revenue to pay for the desperately needed repairs of our roads. This will benefit tourism, citizen satisfaction, and will add jobs. Looks like a win-win, all except for our legislature’s refusal to raise taxes to pay for the needed work.
    I would love to see an aggressive campaign to vote out any legislators who refuse to take action on this important issue.

    1. Amanda Phillips

      We need to vote out the legislators that seem to feel our poor roads and bridges are not a priority. Driving is dangerous for the citizens and the safety of our cars! We do not need lowers taxes as a political agenda that seems to equate with being re-elected. I feel like I am living in a war zone, and a third world country. This is intolerable.

      1. Jim

        Amanda,
        You mean to say to vote out the Republicans who have stopped the spending on our roads and bridges!

  3. Chris

    Perhaps if the state of Michigan would vet it’s contractors and subcontractors a little more carefully, there wouldn’t be such a waste of the money that we DO get for roads. When you have to tear down the overpass supports on the M-6 because they used the wrong rebar when it was being built takes extra money. Having to lower Grandville Ave when the new S-curve construction was done was another waste of money. Perhaps the early finish bonuses should be reconsidered. Perhaps some more research and a change of road fixing materials is called for. Some of the roads with bad potholes or that are falling apart are only 2-3 years old. A shovel of cold-patch doesn’t do anything long-term. The next good rain and it’s gone. If your vehicle does sustain damage, there’s this wonderful thing called “governnental immunity.” That means you the driver are SOL if you fall into a pothole.

    ‘Or maybe just close of the entire state and start at the Indiana border and work north fixing all the roads. Thern when they’re done, reopen the state to traffic. That makes as much sense as raising the taxes during an election year.

    1. Eric

      Within months of I-69 through Lansing being reconstructed, MDOT was already out there making repairs to faulty concrete joints. Where’s MDOT’s enforcement power to make sure our money is wisely spent rather than just spent on the lowest bidder?

  4. Doug Curry

    It is my firm belief that taxpayers will support taxes and appropriations that make sense and result in proven results. The party in power must accept this concept and support proposes that will result in positive action that will benefit all or a significant portion of our community.

    1. Charles Richards

      So, does Mr. Curry mean to assert that increased taxes to pay for improving our infrastructure do not ” make sense and result in proven results.”? Clearly, increased fuel taxes and registration fees have little, or no support. That must mean, according to Mr. Curry, that investing in our infrastructure is unwise.

      1. Doug Curry

        Sorry for any misunderstanding. I believe strongly that funding infrastructure repairs and improvements are vital to the future of Michigan and that citizens would be willing to support earmarked taxes and expenditures for that purpose.

  5. Rick

    Funny how this article fails to mention that we have the heaviest allowances for trucks and lowered (or perhaps it was eliminated) road costs off businesses.

    We look like a third world country. My wife and I were in Estonia last summer and their roads were incredible – we drove 1,200 miles there and can’t remember seeing a pothole. And in 1993 the Soviets left them with a very deteriorated infrastructure and no money.

    And their winters are worse than ours.

    The difference? They know that infrastructure matters and fund it like responsible adults. We don’t.

  6. afla

    If you seek a beautiful peninsula, look about you no longer applies to Michigan, primarily because you don’t dare look up from the roadway long enough to see anything other than the potholes you’re avoiding. Perhaps we might change the motto to “if you seek the worst roadways in the country, come to Michigan”. Our roads are a national embarrassment. We must stop electing ostriches to State office and find some eagles who can look down on the roadways and bridges, actually see them and then begin to cure the problem. Taxes for public improvement are not anathema.

  7. Peter K. Pleitner

    Funny how low population counties have the best roads in Michigan. It’s because funding is apportioned by miles of roads not the traffic, kind of like re carpeting all of the bedrooms each time the stair carpeting wears out.

    Is a funding scheme weighted by weight of trucks and volume of high density traffic so difficult to implement? Yup, in Lansing it is. And it’s stupid how the roadbed specification is based upon the hoped for easiest soil and drainage conditions, never mind all those pesky patches of poor soils just paved over then patched and patched again.

    And finally, when was the last decade that concrete slump test samples from each load delivered were actually tested and the contractor held accountable for using poor mixes?

    And in closing, why does Lansing take no pride in their most visible legacy, why are we not embarrassed? Because what’s good enough for pickups and SUVs is good enough. What next? Will we be going back to using outhouses?

  8. Kunzorama

    It’s crazy that Michgan’s fuel taxes are a fixed number of cents per gallon, not adjusted for years now. That doesn’t correct for inflation, doesn’t address the decreasing revenues due to increase in vehicle MPG, and doesn’t capture revenues from electric or alternative fuel vehicles. Michigan is also in the minority in levying a sales tax on gasoline, which is embedded in the cost per gallon, but supports the general fund.

    I drive about 60,000 miles a year, so an increase in the fuel taxes would hit me hard, but it’s the fairest way of funding road construction and maintenance and should be pursued. Raise the rates; make it a percent of the price (wholesale, probably) so it rises with inflation, and capture something from alternative fuel (electricity, natural gas) sales as well.

  9. Dave Medema

    What is the true source of legislative fear of raising road taxes? Part of it is the Grover Norquist-inspired anti-tax ideological litmus test that has infected the GOP regardless of the benefits of said taxes, even when local communities want to raise them. Part of it is the standard of “success” that legislators hold for themselves — getting re-elected. Courageous leadership is a scarce commodity. And finally, I wonder why such national groups as Americans For Prosperity intrude to oppose local taxation issues as Grand Rapids’ efforts to self-fund road repair. What is the broader agenda here?

  10. David Smallmon

    As late as the year 2000, Michigan had the best economy in the nation! Since then with the systematic shut down of the auto industry in Michigan(moving auto jobs out of Michigan), now Michigan has one of the worst economies in the nation! As a result, a massive loss of tax revenue, Michigan can not repair its roads the way it did in the past! All that adds up to me!

  11. Eric

    I’m tired of MDOT officials and “Road Gang” lobbyists telling us we need to spend more on roads. Research Kirk Steudle’s background. Our roads need fixing, but give that money to our local governments, rather than the fat cats in Lansing who will make sure their cronies get paid.

    1. Scott

      Eric, in November 2013 the voters of Grand Traverse County voted a tax increase for roads that is supposed to bring in $3 million. There is a list of projects that will be done this summer. But guess what the first order of business was by the GT County Road Commission? This week they announced a 2.5% salary increase for staff. I’m pretty sure that was NOT why the voters approved the tax increase. Even at the local level there is little accountability. Vote the commissioners out, and the new ones continue the same poor policies.

    2. Harris

      The difficulty, Eric, is that the Stare still needs to raise that money, and presently there is little will to do so. Secondly, there is the small matter of local control. Locales vary in their own efficiency, standards, and yes, corruption. Better one pot than ninety-three.

      1. Eric

        Working in government, I completely understand the difference between a city and a state. My point was that there’s a disconnect between the crooks in Lansing, MDOT Snyder-appointed Director included, and where Road Commissions are able to spend money hiring contractors to repair roads.

  12. Glenn

    The governor and Republican legislators weren’t afraid to raise taxes on retirees and contributors to public institutions and homeless shelters/soup kitchens so they could give big breaks to businesses. Why are they so afraid to raise taxes on everyone for roads? I will suggest two reasons. They’re good at counting votes and they think we’ll forget. There’s a word for such behavior: hypocrisy.

    1. Eric

      Snyder has spent his last dime of political capital on raising taxes on the middle class, RTW, and social issues.

  13. Cory

    Maybe we should go to a sales tax(2%) for roads and transit(1.5% for roads,.5% for transit and trails). Get rid of the gas tax. Vehicles are getting more efficient and the sales tax would raise more money than the current rate.

  14. John S.

    Republican legislators are persuaded that they’ll face a primary challenge from some Tea Party activist should they vote for an increase in the gas tax. They don’t want that to happen. So they put their own interest in an easy reelection ahead of the public interest in having decent roads. What else is new?

  15. Doug

    recently returned from 10 days driving..north across the bridge west through the UP and into northern Wisconsin at Menominee/’Marinette to Minneapolis, several days driving arouond the city..the worst of the roads I encountered would be well above average in Michigan (US 2 was above average plus). Returned the southern route through Wisconsin, Ilinois and Indiana back up to 94…not so much difference between us and the two “I’ states, except they both had more stretches that looked quite new…(no, we’re not crazy to drive that trip at the end of March..new grandbaby in the family!

    We really have disinvested over several decades, and it’s not the weather that makes it tougher. We need a combination of short term fixes and long term rebuilds supported by bonds. FYI..we’re averaging about $7B UNDER the Headlee Sec 29 revenue limit over the last 5 years..high taxes aren’t the problem either. We are also way short of political guts and vision.

  16. Edward

    If you raise my taxes to pay for roads, I WILL VOTE FOR YOU! Forget about all these freeloading ‘fiscal conservatives’ who want roads fixed but don’t want to pay for it. Gasoline tax revenues have been flat since 1998, while modest levels of inflation have slowly eroded the purchasing power of this fixed source of revenue.

  17. Duane

    I wonder if anyone such as MDOT or Legislators have benchmarked or State roads and road programs to those of the states with similar and more severe weather then ours to see how they compare and to findout what they are doing differently.

    Why don’t hear Stafford from MDOT talking about what others are experiencing and why? Why doesn’t Pat Shellenbarger show any interest in what other experiences are around the Great Lakes? What if Michigan could do better in developing the roads, in repairing the roads, in maintaining the roads, in the materials used in the roads? It would at least be interesting and even reassuring fi we could how well MDOT is doing when compared with other states.

  18. Charlene

    This is the message I sent to my State Representative and State Senator today. Our elected officials need to hear this from their constituencies.

    “It’s time for Michigan’s legislature to get serious about a long-term solution to funding of roads. If the legislature does anything less than Governor Snyder’s $1.3 billion proposal, then it has not only impaired Michigan’s economic potential, but assured our children and grandchildren will be stuck with a much bigger problem.”

  19. Keith

    In additiona to thr fear of raising taxes, several comments indicate an inability to manage capital projects responsibilty. Accepting the lowest tender usually means poor quality execution.

    1. Duane

      Keith,

      That place greater importance on the knowledge of the person making the specification and the quality assurance the State holds the contractor to, and even how they are held to the specification.

      Think of how the HHS still paid for a botched webpage, is MDOT paying today for roads that start falling apart after only 2 or 3 years?

      We hear nothing about how MDOT manages the spending.

  20. History0000

    Michigan is becoming worse that Alabama…

    Fix your roads!

    Who the heck wants to visit and spend money in Michigan
    and risk life and limb driving on such crappy roads?!

    Not fixing your roads is costing a lot more than fixing it….

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