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Our roads are still getting worse

March 7, 2017

Courtesy of MIRS News

Michigan roads are getting worse and they’re not expected to get better.

By 2021, the year the full $1.2 billion transportation funding package is fully implemented, half of all Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) maintained roads are projected to be in poor condition. Today, a little more than 20 percent are in poor condition.

MDOT estimates shared with a Senate panel show the much-ballyhooed package that raised the gas tax 7 cents, increased vehicle registration fees 20 percent and steered $600 million from the General Fund into roads will only have a marginal impact in stopping a steady slide of the percentage of roads deemed in good or fair condition.

About 80 percent of Michigan’s roads were in good or fair condition last year. That number is slated to fall to just over 70 percent this year and the trend chart shared by MDOT Director Kirk Steudle only keeps dropping.

In 10 years, more than 60 percent of the state-maintained roads will be “poor.”

The numbers seemed to shock Senate MDOT Appropriations Subcommittee members this week, who were under the impression that the influx of $1.2 billion was going to maintain the state’s road quality.

“The funding is going up so we should be halting that line from the fall, right?” asked Senate MDOT Appropriations Chair Goeff Hansen (R-Hart).

Wrong. Steudle told the panel on Tuesday, and Lance Binoniemi of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association (MITA) reiterated to the same panel on Wednesday, that the package is limiting the rate of decline. Instead of 67 percent of MDOT-managed roads being in poor condition as of 2022, the new $1.2 billion cuts that number to 55 percent.

A clearly frustrated Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) said the $1.2 billion number had been used so repeatedly that he was under the impression that passing the package would keep roads in good condition.

“It’s like you’re building a house. You get a price of the house, but find out later it didn’t include the cost of the foundation,” he said. “It’s a huge disconnect.”

From the testimony table Binoniemi softly shared with Knollenberg that when he started with MITA in 2011, the annual increase in state spending on roads to keep them at their current condition was $1.2 billion. By 2015 that number was up to $1.8 to $2 billion.

“I’m not here to suggest that we’re not happy or pleased with your efforts to get road funding done, but more is needed,” said Binoniemi, who then slipped in that a “more serious conversation” will be needed in four years on more road funding.

MDOT spokesperson Jeff Cranson noted Gov. Rick Snyder called for an additional $1 billion in Oct. 2011 for just state trunklines. The new $1.2 billion is carved three ways — state roads (39 percent), county roads (39 percent) and city roads (22 percent).

“It has been widely understood that this was not enough money to get state trunklines where it should be,” Cranson said. “No one ever said this would be enough for trunklines. MDOT officials have talked about it slowing the deterioration and the Governor and others have called it a good start.”

Given the high amount of political angst and energy that went into passing the 2015 package, Steudle didn’t spend a lot of time Tuesday on his road quality chart, which forecasts Michigan roads will deteriorate a rate resembling a ski slope from 2015 to 2028.

Instead, Steudle said the federal government is starting to penalize Michigan for too many of its roads being in poor condition.

But even if Michigan threw every cent of its federal money into the freeway system, it wouldn’t be enough to meet the federal requirements on road upkeep.

So how did this happen?

During the 1990s, former Gov. John Engler — in his zeal to see 90 percent of Michigan’s roads in good or fair condition — bonded to pay for a number of projects that created roads with a 30-year lifespan. To make the roads last longer would’ve cost substantially more, so 30 years became the number.

The full impact of those investments were realized in 2007 and 2008, when Michigan hit that 90 percent peak, but at that point Michigan was in the midst of its single-state double recession. Lawmakers had no appetite to spend much money on anything, let alone the maintenance needed to keep the roads at the 90 percent peak.

As a result, the good roads Engler helped pave the way for fell into disrepair quicker and policymakers will be looking at more expensive fixes down the road.

“I didn’t support the road funding plan when it was put forth last session because I didn’t think it did enough soon enough,” said Rep. Tom Cochran (D-Mason), the minority vice chair on the House MDOT Appropriations Subcommittee. “We continue to disinvest in our infrastructure.”

The legislature missed an opportunity in 2015 to raise gas taxes to the level necessary to keep the roads in good condition, Cochran said. Gas prices were relatively low in 2015. Additional pennies per gallon should have been added at a time when the public likely wouldn’t have noticed it as much.

“People are willing to pay,” Cochran said.

Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron), chair of the House MDOT Appropriations Subcommittee, saw it a bit differently after hearing Steudle’s presentation a couple weeks ago.

“If you went out to the people right now and told them we needed $1 billion more for roads, you’d see one heck of an uprising,” he said.

The conservative Republican said the “paint isn’t even dry” on the 2015 road funding plan. His approach is to let the new policy play out and continue to find creative ways to get “as much money as possible to the pavement.”

Because of the way things stand right now, Hernandez will “absolutely not” be pushing for additional money for the roads.

“People aren’t happy about the $1.2 billion we just got,” he said. “There’s no way we’re going back for more.” 

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