Who's to blame for Michigan's road woes?

There is no shortage of fancy electronic charts, graphs and statistics to document the crumbling state of Michigan's streets and highways.

Grand Rapids auto repair shop owner Jay Ziomkowski, though, charts it by the customers who walk through his door.

He recalled a recent winter, when “the roads were just horrific. Certain sections were like a bomb went off. You would get bent rims, blown tires. The struts would actually break off where they were mounted.”

Of course, from his perspective, that might not be all bad.

“I don't mind. It brings work. We do a ton of wheel bearings and I think that's related to the condition of the roads.”

For nearly everyone else, however, there is a price to pay for a state transportation grid in decline.

Numbers show what drivers know

According to a 2011 state report, 13.6 percent of 85,000 lane miles on roads eligible for federal funding needed structural repair in 2004. By 2011, that figure had more than doubled to 35.1 percent.

In 2004, nearly 88 percent of those roads were considered in good or fair shape, according to the Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council. That declined to 64.9 percent by 2011.

Michigan has another 80,000 miles of roads not eligible for federal aid, mostly streets and little-traveled rural roads. The news there is no better.

Of some 10,000 miles of such roads that were rated, 44 percent were in poor condition, 46 percent in fair and just 10 percent in good condition.

Michigan annually pops up near the top of lists that only confirm what frustrated drivers often say.

In 2010, Michigan's roads were ranked second worst in the nation by trucking publication Overdrive Magazine. In 2009, they rated third worst.

In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers in Michigan gave Michigan roads a grade of “D” and state bridges a “C.” It also noted that some 10,000 miles of primary roads slid from “good” to “fair” condition between 2004 and 2007.

According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, the condition of the state's 10,000 bridges showed slight improvement from 2004 to 2011.

But it also noted that Michigan topped another dubious list, leading Great Lakes states in 2012 in percentage of structurally deficient bridges on all roadways with 11.8 percent.

At Capitol, calls for new funding

Gov. Rick Snyder is calling for an extra $1.2 billion in annual transportation funding. That could be could be raised through legislation to install a wholesale gas tax and increase registration fees or a voter referendum to increase the state sales tax by 2 cents. Both options would scrap the 19-cents-per-gallon tax paid at the pump.

Snyder also has proposed a local option under which counties could approve additional vehicle registration increases to fund local road improvements. Michigan has about 120,000 miles of paved roadway, including nearly 10,000 miles of state trunkline, 90,000 miles of county roads, and just over 20,000 miles of city and village streets.

The added funds are to compensate for a decade of declining revenue to fix roads and bridges.

Fuel efficiency disrupts repair system

As cars get more fuel efficient, revenue from the gas tax – the primary funding source for transportation infrastructure - declined from more than $940 million in fiscal year 2002-2003 to $846 million in fiscal 2008-2009. According to the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, the amounts to a drop of 42 percent when adjusted for inflation. It calculated that overall transporation transportation revenue, including vehicle license and registration fees, the gas tax and 15-cent diesel fuel tax, declined by 39 percent allowing for inflation during that period.

At the same time, the cost of everything from asphalt to paving trucks has only gone up.

“It's extremely frustrating,” said Jon Rice, managing director of the Kent County Road Commission.

“We've got a huge investment (in roads and bridges) in Kent County and to see that investment deteriorate and knowing that we can't do what the public expects us to do is very frustrating.”

Rice said the county netted $29 million in state transportation fund revenues for fiscal 2012 -- same amount it received in 1999. Adjusting for inflation, that represents a funding drop of $11 million. Rice estimated during that same period that basic maintenance costs increased by at least 80 percent.

The cost to road quality has been considerable. In 2004, 18 percent of county roads were rated in poor condition. That nearly doubled to 35 percent in 2010.

“As the years go on, the deterioration keeps getting ahead of us,” he said.

In the long run, that means it will cost even more to upgrade roads to acceptable standards. MDOT estimates the cost of returning a poor road to good condition is four to five times greater than the cost of returning a fair road to good condition.

And the price paid by the motoring public is more than a bone-jarring ride. Michigan transportation officials estimated in 2009 that bad roads cost state motorists $370 a year in extra vehicle operating expenses. Business advocates say it costs millions of dollars more in added expenses to the manufacturing and agriculture sector while undermining growth in tourism.

State officials say that if funding remains static, it will cost $25 billion in added repair bills over 10 years for the state road system.

MDOT Director Kirk Steudle compares road and bridge maintenance to the basic hygiene needed to keep a set of teeth. Neglect either and the result is not pretty.

“You are born with a nice set of teeth, but if you don't brush them and go to the dentist, when you get to about 40, you can go get a new set of teeth.”


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Tue, 02/05/2013 - 9:22am
I really disagree with the option to increase the sales tax by 2%. Putting this money into a general fund would only mean that politicians would see a goldmine of revenue to spend on projects other than roads. A gas tax increase would be easier to segregate if the gas tax would be dedicated to transportation. Twenty years ago I did research on road profiling. Many other improvements come to mind. First and foremost is to stop the practice of just heaving patch fix into holes and letting the traffic tamp it down. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has shown that a pothole or even a fixed pothole just breeds another pothole about 3 to 4 feet further down the road. Take the time to do it right and a smoothed pile of fix will last a lot longer and not breed additional potholes. Second is the suspension system on many trucks. Again research has shown that certain suspension systems are far more friendly to the roads than others. Adjust the registration fees on trucks to provide a huge financial disincentive for those unfriendly but less expensive suspension systems. What ever happened to the paving research that was being done on I-375 in Detroit? About 20 years ago, a stretch of that road was paved to European standards. While more expensive to install, it was supposed to be more resistant to the freeze-thaw cycles we encounter.
David Waymire
Tue, 02/05/2013 - 12:30pm
In 2000-01, the state spent $3.036 billion on roads, including federal funds. In the 2012-13 fiscal year we are now in, that will be $3.466 billion, a $410 million or 13 percent increase. Turn to higher education. In 2000-01, the state spent $1.910 billion, including federal funds. This year, it will spend $1.399 billion. That’s a 26 percent cut in overall spending, down $511 million. Revenue sharing? In 2000-01, the state sent $1.555 billion to cities. This year: $1.096 billion – a $459 million cut, 29.5 percent less than a decade ago. Meanwhile, the miles of roads and number of bridges the state is responsible for likely has changed very, very little over that decade. But the number of college students has increased by more than 8 percent. It’s good for people to argue that we need to invest more in the state’s transportation system. That’s particularly true when it comes to mass transit. But the argument for investment in higher education and cities is equally – if not more – important if Michigan is going to win the war for prosperity by moving our state firmly into the 3.0 economy where good paying jobs are being created.
Tue, 02/05/2013 - 1:01pm
The best solution to Michigan’s road funding problem isn’t to just simply raise our vehicle registration fees or to raise our sales taxes but to redesign our entire sales system. With our sales taxation, our extremely high vehicle insurance, high and maybe increasing registration fees and relative high amount of tax we pay per gallon of gas, you’d never guess the prominent place in Michigan the auto industry occupies. You’d expect this from California or Massachusetts as a means to discourage auto ownership, not the home of the US auto industry. The reason Michigan has high total gas taxes and yet starves its road maintenance is, unlike other states we apply sales tax to gas purchases as well as a relatively low gas tax – then split the total tax take between roads and our schools. I and most Michigainians believe the connection of gas taxes (and gas used) to road maintenance, is a tax that actually makes sense! Just simply adding 2 points to our sales tax breaks this connection and as a retailer I can say, helps push my customers to out of state/ internet retailers. A solution I would suggest is to change (not increase) our sales tax law. I believe that we should look into applying sales taxes AT A LOWER RATE to all Purchases (services and food too!). Our current system of taxing some things and not others just creates distortions and incentivizes evasion. And raising sales tax on the same bad system only makes things worse. Many states apply sales taxes to food and services so we wouldn’t be alone. I suspect that even dropping the rate to say 3% across the board would raise even more revenue than the current system, and be a politically feasible way of providing funds to replace the school’s sales tax revenue from gas sales, thereby allowing gas taxes to go where they should, taking care of our roads, without raising the total tax bite per gallon. I believe our entire tax system (state and federal) and it bad incentives is in need of reconsideration. Just simply adding to poorly conceived existing taxes is the wrong approach.
Tue, 02/05/2013 - 1:02pm
Rich is right about the money should not be put into the general fund. How many times have we had increases under the "road improvement" sales pitch? The funds keep being transferred to something else and the roads have obviously never been fixed wth any of that money. And I totally disagree with Snyder's option of charging $120 per vehicle as a "user fee". I can only drive one vehicle at a time. And people that use public transportation would not be contributing either.
Tue, 02/05/2013 - 1:58pm
The problem is long standing-decades long. We have, as a state, underfunded our road construction and repair budgets, and thus we do not get as much federal match money in return, compounding our problems. What needs to be done? First, more committment of state dollars for road work, ones that will draw matching money from Washington. Committed meaning the legislature can't grab them for something else on a whim. Can be creative on how that is done, but should be a reasonably stable revenue sorce. Should also include diesel tax parity with gas, diesel was left out in the last gas tax increase. Second, attack weight limits on trucks, we have some of the highest weight limits in the nation. Trucks, especially those hauling trailers with multiple axles, tear up the roads disproportionately. Create a sine wave effect. Go to youtube and see the video from years ago on the Tacoma-Narrows bridge if you want to see what a sine wave will do. So bring down the weight and limit multiple axle trailers. Third, employ better road building technology. European roads last longer because they are build better. Cost more, but save down the road in maintainence. Too often penny wise and pound foolish in this state and country. If you really want to attract business to this state, have to do more than lower business taxes. Good roads and bridges, quality schools, healthy environment goes a long way as well.
J A Reyes
Wed, 02/06/2013 - 8:06pm
John Engler didn't fix the roads as governor and Granholm had to play catch-up but it was already too late. Good roads are one of the many bad "quality of life" issues that we deal with here in Michigan.
Sun, 02/10/2013 - 3:38pm
The TAX increase will put us at the top of all the states for road funding ,The truck limit is 164,000 LB.this 2 times the weight limit of all the other states ,The road Engineers say the load is distributed on more axels it doesn't hurt the roads ,well I think thats a lot of B.S.