The holes in our roads are like dental cavities: Ignore them and they get bigger

Aug 18, 2014

By now coverage of last week’s Detroit area flooding has receded. For now, many of us have temporarily forgotten about how bad the potholes were last winter. We are trying, after all, to enjoy the last few days of summer.

However, roads, unlike little boys with scraped knees, don’t heal themselves.

When I was a kid I remember being told that the best thing you could do for a scraped knee was to spit on it.

This is actually not true. Most people know this by now, especially if you’ve ever taken a personal hygiene class. There are a lot more dangerous myths out there, however.

One of which is that we can’t afford to fix our infrastructure.

The fact is that in sheer dollars-and-cents terms we can’t afford not to. This weekend I talked to Jeff Cranson, the head of communications for MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation.

I asked him to help me get some hard, cold numbers about the cost of both repairing the roads and also the costs of not doing so.

He did, and you may well find both sets of figures surprising. Two years ago, Governor Rick Snyder asked the Legislature to come up with $1.2 billion a year for the next 10 years. Not to build new roads, but to maintain and fix the ones we have.

The lawmakers ignored him.

Even after last winter, they still couldn’t muster a majority for serious money for the roads.

Well, guess what. Roads aren’t like scraped knees, but they are like dental cavities: Ignore them and they get bigger.

MDOT tells me  that the current additional investment needed to preserve existing roads and bridges is now $2.2 billion a year.

That’s just to fix them. That doesn’t include any money to relieve congestion or make them safer.

Naturally, your average lawmaker would say we could never afford that. Why, that’s even more than we spend to warehouse our more than 40,000 prisoners.

The cost [of poor road condition] to [Michigan residents] every year in lost time and wasted fuel, extra crashes, etc. is $7.7 billion a year. --TRIP, a nonprofit transportation study group

Well, life is all about priorities. But here are other numbers that indicate we can’t afford not to spend this money.

There’s a nonprofit transportation study group called TRIP, and last year they calculated the costs of Michigan’s doing nothing more to address our transportation funding crisis.

TRIP found that the cost to us every year in lost time and wasted fuel, extra crashes, etc. is $7.7 billion a year.

That’s $1,600 a year for every Detroit-area driver, and more than $1,000 a year for drivers in places like Grand Rapids.

We can’t afford not to fix the roads. There’s something else that often gets overlooked as well. Fixing the infrastructure means jobs.

According to MDOT’s economic models, the governor’s road proposal would create more than 14,000 new jobs in the first two years, and more than 130,000 over the next decade. It would mean an increase of billions in both personal income and Michigan’s gross state product.

Spending money on our roads is probably the best investment we could make. Not doing so might be our worst mistake. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in this fall’s campaign.   

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.