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Look Close: Flood of Money, Words Yield Scant Improvement in State Roads

Exclusive study finds deep cracks in costly repair program, greater need for "fix it first"

March 3, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen
  During the Engler administration, the Michigan Department of Transportation's classification system rated pavement like this as "good" if it could last more than another two years.

Despite the billions of dollars that the Michigan Department of Transportation has spent to repair its ragged road system, the state’s highways have scarcely improved since the current rebuilding program began in 1997, according to an exclusive analysis of state records by the Michigan Land Use Institute. As a result, Michigan’s road conditions continue to rank among the worst in the nation.

The Institute’s study, based on MDOT’s internal road repair data, found that the state allowed some roads to decay prematurely while it poured money into patching old ones that instead needed complete reconstruction. The investigation also found that this maintenance approach actually drove up costs and that the transportation department spent a much smaller percentage of its budget on repairs than it claimed.

The Institute concluded that by continuing to spend money expanding its road system even while existing roads crumbled and repair costs soared, the department only made matters worse. As a result, the state is trapped on an expensive treadmill and what was once a vexing pothole problem is now a full-blown repair crisis.

Road Reality Check
The life expectancy of 20 percent of Michigan's state roads: 0 years
The life expectancy of 57 percent of Michigan's state roads: 0-7 years
Life expectancy of a "good" road, according to the Engler administration: 3 years
The lifetime of a new state road, without preventive maintenance: 27 years
The lifetime of a new state road, with regular maintenance: 40 years
The Granholm administration's goal for the lifetime of a new state road: 50 years

Source: Michigan Department of Transportation.

“The taxpayers and the economy can’t absorb the costs of building new roads when we have so many roads, bridges, schools, and entire communities that have fallen into a blighted state of disrepair,” said Tom Barwin, city manager of Ferndale, a Detroit suburb, and a founding member of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

Asked to comment on the Institute’s findings, Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, indicated that her administration had come to a similar conclusion and was taking a new approach.

“Michigan families deserve better roads right now,” Ms. Granholm said in a written statement. “We must focus on fixing the roads we have today before we look to expanding tomorrow. I am directing that our transportation spending . . . focus on preservation first.” 

Crisis Offers Opportunity, Creates Some Resistance
The statement, prepared by the governor’s office to accompany an executive order that partially fulfilled her campaign pledge to “fix it first,” was released on January 31. The executive order diverted $150 million from building roads to repairing them and undid a portion of Build Michigan III, a $900-million road-building program launched by former Governor John Engler during his final term. 

The Institute’s findings come as Michigan faces a $1.8 billion budget deficit in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2003. State and national Smart Growth experts believe the Institute’s analysis and the flagging economy could boost Gov. Granholm’s chances of making her money-saving “fix it first” philosophy stick.

The state Legislature also is weighing its option to more carefully examine the state’s transportation spending. “The transportation department usually has the ability to set the priorities,” said state Representative Scott Shackleton, a Republican from Sault Ste. Marie and chair of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, which oversees MDOT’s budget. “But if we look closer and decide, ‘Hey, you’re on the wrong track,’ then we can change the direction. But it would be micromanagement for the Legislature to go too far.”

One group that supports the status quo is the Michigan Road Builders Association, an influential trade group that holds fundraisers for state lawmakers who set transportation policy. It blames insufficient road funds, not state policies, for Michigan’s road morass.

“MRBA supports the department’s historic emphasis on preserving the existing system as their number one priority,” said Gary G. Naeyaert, the group’s chief spokesman and lobbyist, who previously served as MDOT communications director under former Gov. Engler. “This doesn’t mean that the department doesn’t have, nor shouldn’t have, other priorities as well.”

Adding It Up
The Institute’s analysis found that in 2000, after three years and $2.5 billion in repairs, the percentage of state roads with seven or fewer years of useful life remaining shrank by just one-tenth of a percentage point, from 57.5 percent to 57.4 percent of all state-maintained roads.

The Institute found fault with how the state began characterizing the quality of its roads during the Engler administration. According to the transportation department, all roads with at least three years of life left in them are defined as “good.” In reality, roads that near the end of their useful life are often so bumpy that that they damage shocks, tires, mufflers, and other vehicle parts. So, while the state declares that it’s nearing its 2007 repair goal of having 90 percent “good” roads, the American Society of Civil Engineers this year said the cost of damage from Michigan’s highways still averages $260 per motorist, or $1.8 billion, annually.

The Institute’s analysis also refuted the transportation department’s written claim, made during the Engler administration, that it devoted nearly all of its road dollars to repair. MDOT asserts in budget reports that 94 percent of its spending goes to road repair and just 6 percent for new road construction. In fact, the Institute found that the agency spent 69 percent of its budget for repairs and 31 percent on brand new pavement from late 1997-2003.

During that period, MDOT spent $350-$500 million annually on new road construction, including brand new highways, road widening, and modernization. Spending on fresh concrete more than consumed revenues from a 1997 boost in the state gasoline tax and other fees that the agency pledged would go strictly for road repairs.

What’s worse, the longer Michigan’s road repair mess continues, the more difficult and expensive it is to catch up. MDOT itself acknowledges that it costs five times less to keep a road in continuously good shape than it does to let it decay significantly before fixing it. That is because timely maintenance avoids severe repair problems and greatly extends the lifetime of a road.

Citizens Point Way to Genuine Progress
As Gov. Granholm grapples with wretched roads, she will be backed by both strong public opinion and a large, organized, and vocal constituency for “fix it first.” A Detroit News survey in the summer of 2002 put road conditions in the top tier of voter concerns, trailing only the economy and education. Another poll conducted by the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments, Detroit’s regional planning body, ranked patching potholes as the top transportation concern of the metropolitan area’s 5 million residents.
Much of the political support “fix it first” enjoys was inspired and organized by the Michigan Transportation & Land Use Coalition — a shared project of the Institute and the Michigan Environmental Council. In recent years, MTLC members have stopped new roads in nearly every region of the Lower Peninsula, prompted Lansing to increase public transit funding, helped expose the scale of the road repair backlog, changed state law that allowed MDOT to report road expansions as maintenance, and pressed for revealing the true condition of all state and local roads.

Many of those who helped crack Michigan’s road-building monolith say they will continue to watch Lansing closely. One of them is Vicky Kovari, lead transportation organizer for the faith-based metropolitan Detroit coalition, MOSES, which drew 5,000 citizens and politicians to a “fix it first” rally in Lansing last September.

“It will take both courage and tenacity to hold officials accountable to their commitments over the next few months and years,” she noted.

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and the transportation project manager at the Michigan Land Use Institute, has worked to scrutinize and reshape Michigan’s transportation policies since 1998. Reach him at 231-882-4723 or Kelly@mlui.org.

















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