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The money to fix Michigan roads is too little, too late

Apr 5, 2017

For a few years, we were constantly hearing about how terrible Michigan’s roads were–and how the legislature kept ignoring citizens’ pleas to fix them.

Then, a couple of years ago, lawmakers did enact what was billed as a road repair package. It doesn’t start providing any new money until this year, but four years from now, it's supposed to generate something like $1.2 billion a year to fix the roads.

That’s provided the Legislature, which is still talking about cutting taxes and state revenue, is willing to take $600 million out of the already strapped general fund. But even if that happens, and even if the next few winters are as mild as this one, here’s the bad news: The new funding is way too little and considerably too late.

Our roads are going to get worse—noticeably and exponentially worse. In the next five years, there is going to be a vast and accelerating increase in the number of roads and bridges in terrible shape. And that means more people will die.

This isn’t hyperbole.

Trip, a highly respected Washington-based transportation research group, just released a new report on Michigan. It makes for grim reading.

Trip concluded the road funding package the governor signed in 2015 "is not sufficient to adequately address the significant deterioration of the system, or to allow the state to provide many of the transportation improvements that are needed to support economic growth." 

The study starkly illustrates what that will mean. Last year, 20 percent of Michigan’s state-maintained roads were in “poor” condition. Three years from now, that figure will be 46 percent – almost half. Bridges are in somewhat better shape. Only one of every nine of those “show significant deterioration and are in need of repair.”

But that too is expected to climb rapidly. The Michigan Department of Transportation estimates that within three years, 354 state highway bridges will be in poor shape.

Someday, one will collapse and people will die.

They are dying now. Few people have noticed, but traffic deaths in Michigan rose 20 percent from 2014 to 2016. I have no doubt text messaging and other distracted driving had a lot to do with that. But so did the condition of the roads.

The TRIP study estimates road conditions are a likely contributing factor in one-third of highway deaths. Last year, more than 1,000 people were killed on our roads. You do the math.

Bad roads are much like tooth decay. The longer you put off fixing the problem, the more complex and expensive it becomes. Trip’s report concludes by stating the obvious:

“As Michigan works to build a thriving, growing and dynamic state, it will be critical…to address the state’s most significant transportation issues by providing a well-maintained 21st century network of roads, highways, bridges and transit.”

Well, we aren’t doing it. And unless that changes, we are going to become a backwater.

The best, easiest and roughly fairest solution is simple.

Forget the fancy funding games, and just raise the gas tax per gallon to get what we need. Otherwise, well, maybe we can switch to a fleet of oxcarts. Our economy may collapse, but I’m sure the United Nations will find a way to get some relief supplies to us.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.