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Michigan builds roads correctly (when it builds roads)

Mar 30, 2015

As everyone knows, we are in the middle of a great statewide debate about whether to raise the sales tax to pay for our roads. Last week, someone asked me a different question about the whole road repair process.

Namely, are we repairing the roads in the right way?

For years, I had heard people grumble that we build our roads out of cheap materials which quickly fall apart, unlike the way they do it in Europe. A man named Richard Ovshinsky told me he understood the standards for road building had slipped.

He told me, “the amount of cement to water has been reduced from a 9 to 1 ratio down to only 6 to 1.” And he added, “It should be obvious that less cement and more water equals a less dense road that will crumble sooner.”  In other words, he told me he didn’t want to throw more good money at the roads if we were certain to get a repeat of bad results.

Well, I can say confidently that my knowledge of the principles of road building is nonexistent. So I turned to the Michigan Department of Transportation, which asked John Staton, a concrete operations and materials engineer, to answer Ovshinsky’s question.

Staton told me that MDOT “closely adheres to the national standards for design, construction, materials, maintenance, et cetera, of roads and bridges.” There are no hard and fast rules for road design; it is based on local conditions. Decisions on how thick concrete should be comes from national standards and procedures.

Those standards, by the way, he said, are established and maintained by a consortium of experts from across the nation. “We use the same protocol as virtually every department of transportation in the country,” he told me. What’s more, technology is better than ever.

Staton, who is an engineer, said that the theory that roads made with less cement and more water are weaker is just not accurate. Instead, he told me, MDOT has studied its roads and bridges for decades.

The performance history conclusively shows that concrete roads made with higher cement content are significantly less durable than today’s mixtures.

Decades ago, he told me, the technology was limited and pretty unsophisticated.

Nowadays, MDOT is able to use better quality cement which can be mixed with chemicals that enhance its durability. Better quality control procedures are also in place.

Today, he told me MDOT can produce roads of higher quality that last longer. By the way, another pavement engineer told me that the construction compliance requirements were not, as often rumored, written by the contracting industry.

Instead they have to be reviewed and approved by the Michigan division of the Federal Highway Administration. That makes some sense, when you consider that the federal government typically pays 80 percent of the cost for any transportation project, including roads.

So according to a couple of the state’s top engineers, Michigan is superbly positioned to build or rebuild good roads that should last for decades.  All that has to happen is for the voters to pass Proposal 1 on May 5th and make the money available.

But based on the polls, my advice to the road builders is … don’t hold your breath.

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