It’s the Pits

There are several reasons why our roads are going to pot
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

Road pavement doesn’t stay pristine for long in a place like Michigan. Everything conspires against it: weather, freight, the enthusiasm for driving that comes from our love of cars. So before you start any discussion of the sad state of Michigan highways, spare a kind thought for the road builders, whose task is truly Sisyphean. If they build it, drivers will come. And then they have to build it again.

But then, commence complaining. You have lots to be weary of.

Michigan roads, while not the worst in the nation, are nothing to be proud of, a jarring truth for motorists as they cross the border in either direction. A new state report says the percentage of road mileage in “poor” condition is up, while that considered “good” is down. Officials estimate the amount of increased funding just to keep roads at their crumbling status quo is $320 million a year — and this at a time of increased out-migration, recession, palpitation-inducing gas prices, and other pain in the general economy. What’s more, the money we don’t spend today on road maintenance has a way of becoming bigger tomorrow, the same way ignoring a roof leak leads to bills for new drywall and ceilings — as well as repair of the original roof leak.

“Road building is expensive,” says Keith Ledbetter, director of legislative affairs for the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association and spokesperson for Drive MI, a coalition of organizations with an interest in improving Michigan highways. “The materials used in highways — concrete, asphalt, steel — those prices have gone through the roof. We’ve seen double-digit price increases every year. The Wixom Road interchange [at I-96] is costing the state $70 million.”

To Ledbetter and other Drive MI members, Michigan is “on a precipice.” Either it maintains and improves this vital part of the state’s infrastructure, or we can suffer as it falls to pieces, taking business and jobs with it.

Making matters worse — or at least more embarrassing — is the fact that two of our neighbors, Ohio and Indiana, are moving ahead. Ohio has a significantly higher gas tax, 28 cents per gallon to Michigan’s 19 cents, and a top-10 ranking in road quality. Indiana recently sold a 75-year lease of its portion of the I-90 toll road to a private consortium for the tidy sum of $3.85 billion, earmarked for road building elsewhere in the state.

But the state can hardly raise its gas tax at a time when the price of fuel is headed for the stratosphere. And Michigan has no toll roads to sell. Such are the headaches faced by Richard Studley, co-chair of the state’s Transportation Funding Task Force, charged with assessing Michigan’s transportation needs, as well as advising the Legislature on the best way to travel down this particular road. Studley, who’s also executive director of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, calls gas taxes a “19th-century solution” to raising transportation dollars. Transportation is “multi-modal” already and likely to become more so, as systems become more efficient, with railroads, shipping, passenger rail, and airports all playing their part.

And, as rising gas prices push more motorists into vehicles that use less of it, and as others limit their driving, a gas tax will bring in less money anyway, Studley says.

The task force is holding hearings all summer and will not issue a report until October. It’s too early to say what they will recommend, Studley says, but he’s looking for “truly creative” solutions that could include converting some roads to toll roads, or forming public-private partnerships to share the costs of maintenance and new construction.

But, he warned, “there’s no quick fix. No silver bullet. No magic answer. A needs assessment is not a wish list, and the Legislature can’t print money.”

Michigan also has unique problems. As climate change gives us warmer winters, we get more freeze-thaw cycles. “One reason [conditions] seemed so bad in January is we went through more [this past] December and January than we normally do all year,” says Bill Shreck, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) spokesman. (Potholes in winter can be filled only with cold-patch, which quickly degrades. In spring, when asphalt plants reopen, they can receive a proper repair.)

That’s not all, though. Michigan allows heavier trucks than most states. Elsewhere, the maximum load is 80,000 pounds on five axles. In Michigan, trucks can carry 150,000 pounds over 11 axles. That’s less weight per axle, which is why there’s a debate over the role those heavier trucks play in degrading roads.

“Some people believe bigger trucks means fewer trucks,” says Steve Karamihas, a senior research associate with the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan. Because they can’t leave the state with such heavy payloads, these trucks generally haul short-distance cargo — asphalt, gravel, dirt, aggregate, et cetera. “In other words, a lot that has to do with road-building,” Karamihas says. “But the bigger the truck, there’s a lot of potential for overloading, particularly with 11 axles. And it’s a small percentage of heavily loaded trucks that do the most damage.”

To Ledbetter, the debate over truck axles isn’t worth having.

“Heavier trucks only consist of 5 percent of the truck traffic,” he says. “And the local and city roads” — where heavy trucks don’t go — “are deteriorated even more. It makes people feel good to find a boogeyman.” But this boogeyman can only be driven off with cash.

“People say, ‘Why don’t we build roads the way we do in Europe?’ ” Ledbetter says. “They’re better, and they last longer. But MDOT tried that with I-75 in Detroit. It cost four times as much, and it’s not lasting any longer.”

He believes it has something to do with Michigan’s soil conditions, which, if true, would be a keen irony for a city that was built on the automobile.

Derringer is a Grosse Pointe Woods-based freelancer. E-mail:

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