What southeast Michigan municipalities are doing to address the state's roads crisis

The deplorable state of Michigan's highways and byways were a central issue for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during her campaign last year. And it's a topic she brought home again in her recent State of the State address during an impassioned plea to state legislators to help her pass a budget to patch up the situation.

"It endangers our lives," she said, "and robs us of our time and our hard-earned money. It hurts our businesses' bottom lines. It jeopardizes our edge in mobility. And limits our economic potential."

Given the extreme partisanship of Michigan's politics today, however, it seems unlikely that Whitmer will get any meaningful traction on repairing the Great Lakes State's roads anytime soon. Barring an unforeseen act of goodwill from Whitmer's adversaries in the GOP-controlled state houses, initiative on fixing Michigan's roadways will have to come from cities and counties stepping up work on roads in their respective jurisdictions. 

Dollars and cents

The big picture for Michigan's roads right now is certainly sobering.

A recent study released by Lvl5, a firm that makes maps for self-driving vehicles, ranked Michigan's roads the worst of any state in the U.S. after using dashcam data to evaluate 5 million miles of road based on paint fading, pavement cracking, potholes, and surface flatness. And the transportation research group TRIP, in a report released last September, found 41 percent of Michigan's major roads to be poor or mediocre and 11 percent of the state's bridges to be structurally deficient.

What's more, TRIP reported that this state of affairs was a costly one for vehicle owners, estimating that Michigan vehicle owners paid $562 a year on average in extra repair and operating costs associated with poorly maintained roads.

And it isn't just motorists who are dealing with the consequences of Michigan's crumbling roadways.

"You think that hitting a pothole in your car is painful, try sitting in the back of a bus when you hit a pothole. It can really be jarring," says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a group that advocates for improved public transit.

Beyond that, bus agencies also have to grapple with the damage shoddy roads cause to their vehicles. 

"Going through tires faster, going through shocks faster, costs transit agencies money that they could otherwise be putting into expanding service," Owens says. 

Matt Rikerwe and Devin Holtmeyer fix a pothole in Ferndale
Historically the upkeep of Michigan's roads has been funded by a combination of state and federal taxes on regular and diesel gasoline. The federal gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993. Neither the state nor federal gas taxes are currently indexed to inflation, though the Michigan gas tax will begin rising in response to inflation beginning in 2022 due to a state funding package passed in 2015.

That legislative package also raised license plate registration fees by 20 percent and began directing that revenue along with several hundred million dollars from the state's general fund to roads. With that still not being enough to remedy the roads situation, Michigan's legislature voted last year for a shift in tax revenue that will divert $143 million from the School Aid Fund in this and coming years.

Since many of Michigan's roads and highways are maintained by the state, cities only see a fraction of this money — 22 percent from the state gas tax and registration fees and about 25 percent of federal road dollars distributed by the state, which they must share with county road commissions. 

In order to do more with these limited funds, southeast Michigan cities have had to get creative. 

Municipal response

Dearborn, for example, has become adept at multitasking. 

Last August, the city's voters approved a $23 million millage to cover the first phase of a new sewer overhaul effort. The Combined Sewage Overflow project is mandated by the federal government's Clean Water Act and will help reduce overflow from the Rouge River. The city is taking advantage of the reconstruction to also renovate its streets. It's already done some major work on Telegraph Road between Dartmouth and Wilson and on Greenfield between Michigan and Warren.

"We're adding one more sewer line to separate waste water from the rain water and you put the road back with new concrete," says M. Yunus Patel, Dearborn's city engineer. "Because of the sewer project we are in a better position."

Meanwhile, Detroit has been able to expand the volume of roads it's been improving while covering routine maintenance costs by looking beyond traditional funding sources. Part of this is due to money from the state legislature's 2015 Roads Bill, but Detroit is also benefiting from a $125 million road bond approved by its city council in 2017.

$80 million of Detroit's Road Bond money is being directed into streetscape projects with the intent of revitalizing major neighborhood corridors like Livernois, West Vernor, and East Warren. This work will be done in a way that encourages walking and biking while also beautifying commercial corridors. The first of these renovations, which includes a stretch of Livernois, will start this spring. Other funding from the Road Bond will be used to complement existing efforts to repair city streets over a three-year period. 

"When the Council approved road bond funds it presented an opportunity that, quite frankly, never could have occurred without taking financial resources from other needed road repairs," says Ron Brundidge, director of the Detroit Department of Public Works. "The availability of the bond funds allows for the city to implement these enhancement projects without taking away any funding for road improvements."

Beyond this, Brundidge says his department has adopted three strategies to keep costs down. Firstly, making sure that the types of improvements undertaken are appropriate to the condition of the road. This could involve removing and replacing old asphalt, repairing and restoring the sub-base of a road prior to repaving, or completely reconstructing a roadway, as needed.

Other measures include proactive maintenance to maximize the life of paved roads and, as Dearborn has done, coordinating road work with utility work. 

Ferndale is known for being a little ahead of the curve when it comes to transportation innovations like bike lanes and traffic-calming measures. So it shouldn't be surprising that the Oakland County city's voters approved around $43 million dollars for road work through a bond in 2015. 

Justin Lyons
But that hasn't stopped officials from pursuing grants as well. About eight miles of Ferndale's major roads are eligible for federal funds and city officials have been proactive in seeking them. 

"You have to apply five years in advance to make sure you're on the list," says Justin Lyons, planner for the city of Ferndale. "So we've been pretty diligent about applying for federal funds for projects like Livernois, Pinecrest, and Woodward Heights."

Ferndale, which has a non-motorized plan and a Complete Streets ordinance, is also a regular applicant for the state's Transportation Alternatives Program, which awards federal funding to projects like bike paths and streetscapes aimed at enhancing Michigan's intermodal transportation system. It's basic physics: the greater number of non-motorized users there are on roads, the less stress it puts on them. 

Carlos Kennedy, Ferndale's director of public works, says the city also saves money by handling a lot of road work in-house and focusing on long-lasting solutions like using Hot Mix Asphalt rather than temporary patches to fix cracks.

"We try to plan out ahead more with our budgets compared to other places that I've been," says Kennedy. "We look more long-term here."

Carlos Kennedy
Cities aren't alone in feeling hamstrung by the dynamics of the state's road funding crisis.

Emily Kizer, spokesperson for the Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC), says the situation has been going on so long her agency has learned how to make do with scarce resources.

"It is going to take many years to dig out of the hole that decades of under-investment have caused," she says.

That said, she does see signs of hope from the recent increases to the fuel tax and license and registration fees. For example, as a result of Public Act 207, a state budget bill passed last year, WCRC will receive roughly $3 million dollars that they'll be investing in road improvements.

The agency has also benefited from a four-year roads and non-motorized millage passed in 2016 that is generating about $3.3 million annually. The millage enabled the county to improve roughly 90 miles of roads in the last two-years, which WCRC has tried to spread around evenly so every community in their jurisdiction can benefit from the extra funding. And, like Ferndale, WCRC has been proactive about seeking state and federal grants. This year, the agency plans to spend $11.7 million in grant funding on 10 grant projects, ranging from resurfacing in Pittsfield Township to building a non-motorized pathway in Ann Arbor.

The agency also partners with local communities, who provided more than $4.1 million in road and culver funding last year, in planning road improvements.  And it assists townships and neighborhoods in administering special assessment districts, designated areas where a majority of property owners agree to let a government entity levy a property tax in exchange for specific services.

When it comes to stretching the road dollars they do have, WCRC tries to engage in a policy of preventative maintenance. For instance, the agency invests strongly in treatments like chip seal — essentially a sunscreen for the road that helps protect it from the sun’s rays and seals it against water damage — to help extend the life of their pavement. 

"Every year we try to chip seal approximately 100 miles of road across the county," Kizer says. "We have started chip-sealing roads a year or two after they have been paved to try and protect that investment for longer."

Difficult choices

Like many of Michigan's municipalities, William Anderson, a specialist in local government finance and operations with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), favors taking a long-term approach to road maintenance.

"If we focus more resources on maintaining our roads while they are still in relatively good shape," he says, "we can significantly extend the useful life of the road for a fraction of the cost of reconstructing a road."

SEMCOG works each year with MDOT and local governments to assess road conditions and has found that once a road reaches "poor condition" under what's known as the Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating (PASER) scale, it becomes unsalvageable and needs to be completely reconstructed. 

Anderson says about half the major roads SEMCOG oversees need to be replaced. And with resources being strained that leads to a difficult predicament.

"Do we spend money on extending the life of the roads that are still in good shape or do we replace roads that have failed?" he says. "The challenge with limited resources is finding the correct balance to stretch those road funds as far as possible."

Photos by Doug Coombe
M. Paul Lippens
M. Paul Lippens
Director of Transportation and Urban
Design at McKenna

What do you think of the Lvl5 study ranking Michigan’s roads the worst in the U.S.? 

The study's conclusions are not as interesting as its methods - using video analysis to assess roads could be a fast way to evaluate and adjust roadway maintenance programming. The algorithm used by Lv15 looked at factors like road paint fading, pavement cracking, potholes, and surface flatness. Alternatively, the MDOT Pavement Surface Evaluation Rating (PASER) is based on a visual analysis conducted by a licensed engineer, so it's probably not as susceptible to skewing by a variable like "road paint fading" but it's also time consuming.

By comparison, in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) put out an Infrastructure Report Card for the US. The study used International Roughness Index (IRI) to evaluate road condition and reported that California had the worst road condition in the Country, with 51% poor condition compared to 39% in Michigan. California had the 8th best roads based on the Lv15 video analysis. It's possible that the video algorithm is likely more sensitive to surface condition than more traditional pavement evaluation methodologies.

Neither the ASCE study or the Lv15 study paint a great picture for Michigan but the State is not alone in having major infrastructure challenges to address

Why do you think the road conditions are so bad in Michigan? 

Michigan roads bear hard winter conditions; freezes, thaws, plows, and salting. The Lv15 map of Road Quality by County shows a swath of red - bad roads - going across the northeast US from Iowa to Maine. 9 of the bottom 10 ranked states in this study are in the snowbelt. That being said we can't blame the weather. Age of infrastructure and deferred maintenance are probably the most obvious factors.

What sort of approaches would you recommend for improving the conditions of Michigan roads?

We need smart roads and that means smart design. Michigan is a national leader in innovation and there is a lot happening with Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) technology here. MDOT has deployed ITS strategies across the state and the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township is a testing ground for innovation in connected and automated vehicles. 

There is also a need to continue to evaluate roadway design standards. There is an old saying in transportation planning that goes - we can't build our way out of congestion - I would argue that we can't build our way out of bad roads either. We need to embrace place-based strategies. Does every road need to be designed for semi-trucks? How important is it that roads be designed so cars can drive fast? 
Can bike lanes and parking lanes be designed to carry a lower load? There is a lot of flexibility in roadway design and we have to make the most of the funding that is available.  

What do you think can be done about Michigan’s roads in terms of policy?

From a policy perspective there are some big questions - like should we invest in local and regional transit. In my mind one of the biggest risks of a transportation system that is dependent on the single-occupancy vehicle is that it limits the ability to choose the right tool for the job. It's got to be about more than fixing the roads - we have to fix the trips too.  

Another big policy question is user fees. Roads are funded largely by vehicles registrations and the gas tax. The Lv15 study found no correlation between higher gas taxes and roadway quality. Looking at the data spread, my hypothesis is that states with a larger maintenance deficit would need to substantially increase the gas tax to improve the systems. A question that will become more important as connected and automated vehicle technology develops is whether commercial trips - like freight and rideshare - should pay the same per mile tax as people. ITS will make it easier to assess user fees and demand pricing for certain trips based on the impacts they place on the system. User fees could also fund maintenance on the specific roads travelled by the payee.