Michigan Land Use Institute



August 1, 1999 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A corresponding chart shows that 8% equals $510 million slated for new roads.

What's also budgeted, however, is about $190 million in TEA-21 funds obtained for projects by Michigan's Congressional delegation. Nearly all that funding also will result in new roads, according to MDOT Director of Communications Gary Naeyaert. Combining the two figures shows that the agency is understating its road-building program by more than 36%.

Why misrepresent the new roads budget, the item perhaps most publicized by thetransportationdepartment?MDOT saysit'sa service to Michigan's federal lawmakers who secured the funds. "Our members of Congress like to see that figure separated out," Mr. Naeyaert said of the TEA-21 funds. "We don't have any problem with you doing that math."

Advocates for solutions to Michigan's worn-out roads, traffic congestion, air pollution, and urban sprawl have a big problem with the state's math, however.

"The MDOT investment program is too much in the wrong place — new roads — and too much in the wrong mode — focusing on moving cars and not people," said Jim Bush, a member of the transportation advisory committee at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments in metropolitan Detroit and of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

MDOT's new-roads agenda presents a particularly dire scenario for Detroit, where 32% of households have no motor vehicles, and for southeast Michigan as a whole, which has the nation's roughest roads. Detroit-Ann Arbor regional drivers pay the most in the entire country to repair road-inflicted damage to their cars: $1,416 each in lifetime repairs, according to a 1998 study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. That translates to a combined car repair cost of $210 million a year to southeast Michigan motorists; the rest of the state's car owners shell out nearly $100 million more per year.

Stay Tuned: More to ComeIf the state transportation department's $700 million road-building budget leaves many roads unrepaired and vehicles battered, the five-year plan indicates residents should expect much more of the same. The guide outlines research for more than $2 billion in new roads, mostly in northern and western Lower Michigan, including the:

  • US-23 rerouting.The $800 million project would reroute and widen 100 miles of US-23 between Standish and Alpena on the state's northeast side. The proposal made this year's list of the 10 most wasteful and environmentally harmful road projects nationwide, as selected by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Friends of the Earth.
  • US-131 rerouting.The $500 million proposal would reroute and widen the rural highway starting near Cadillac and extending north to a proposed connector to I-75.
  • US-31 bypass.The $315 million project would create a new, 27-mile route for US-31 between Grand Haven and Holland. Another $270 million would be spent to widen to six lanes the portion of US-31 being bypassed.
  • Traverse City Bypass.The $300 million bypass would loop for 33 miles around Traverse City and link with US-31 at both ends.
  • Petoskey Bypass.The $70 million bypass would reroute US-31 through rural townships south and east of Petoskey in Northern Michigan.

"We don't fund every road we study," says MDOT's Mr. Naeyaert. History shows, however, that only the federal government's refusal to provide funding or years of citizen opposition actually stop state road projects.

Widen While We're At ItNew road building is not the only way the state transportation department plows ahead with expanding a system that it poorly maintains. MDOT's five-year plan directs nearly $900 million to "capacity improvements," which include road widenings and new interchanges, and some related road reconstruction. In addition to its five-year plan, the agency also is considering a $1.3 billion project to widen and rebuild a seven-mile stretch of I-94 and reconstruct four miles of interchanges in Wayne County.

Analysts note that a widened road poses many of the same problems caused by new roads, namely more traffic and pollution, less open space, and no option for those who do not own a car or cannot drive. Recent national studies show that widening roads to ease congestion does not work. The new road space quickly fills up with people choosing to live even farther away from work and driving more to reach sprawling development miles out along the road.

When Things Get Tough, Change the DefinitionsRather than promote its new-and-wider-roads vision for Michigan's future, MDOT instead has marketed the road-repair goal set in 1997 by Gov. Engler.

While that goal was vague in the beginning, MDOT recently made it even more hazy, but without the fanfare that accompanied the original announcement.

Before the release of MDOT's five-year plan, the target had been to bring 90% of state roads into "good or fair" condition. Now, the plan calls for 90% of roads to be simply in "good" condition. At first, this sounds like an upgrade. But the goal has not changed; it's just the description that sounds better.

Mr. Naeyaert said the difference between "good" and "fair" roads is primarily the number of years the pavement will last, which is not easily detected by its appearance. So, he added, MDOT simplified the description to avoid confusing the public.

Will most oftheroads classified in the new, broadercategory of "good"actually be"fair" roads that soon will need fresh repairs and moremoney?MDOT isn't saying.

CONTACTS:Kelly Thayer at the Institute, 231-882-4723, e -mail:mailto:trans@mlui.org>; Jim Bush, EMEAC, 313-864-4876; Tom Leonard, WMEAC, 616-451-3051, e-mail: <mailto:wmeacl@aol.com>; Gary Naeyaert, MDOT, 517-335-3084.

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