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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.

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