Special Report: Michigan’s Rough Roads

Michigan’s roads are falling apart, and it’s costing you big time.

According to the 2014 TRIP report, we each spend, on average, more than $350 per year in unnecessary repairs all due to our state’s crackling roadways.

9&10’s Evan Dean and photojournalist Jacob Johnson hit the pavement to uncover the problem and find out if there’s a solution in his Special Report: Michigan’s Rough Roads. 

In Northern Michigan, you can find crumbling roads seemingly everywhere you go. Just ask Roger Steig, the owner of a small trucking company in Reed City for the past 40 years.  “These potholes have gotten so bad it’s a safety issue. They’ll take the wheel outta your hand,” Steig said.

A safety issue and a financial burden. Roger says his maintenance costs are nearly double what they should be, all because of our rough roads.

“You travel on these roads here, you knock something out of alignment. Two, three days you can eat up a set of tires trying to keep things in line. Rough roads are a big factor.”

So why are Michigan’s roads falling apart? No surprise here, it’s a lack of funding.

“They’ve been sorely under funded for 44 years. We got the 9th largest infrastructure in the country and we’re the last in what we spend back on the roads and bridges,” said Al Cooper, manager of the Wexford County Road Commission.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Cooper is right. Michigan ranks dead last in per capita spending on roads.

For Cooper and his team, that makes it harder to maintain deteriorating roadways.

“I don’t know where we could cut any more and still be able to get our job done.”

It’s the same story for cities, and MDOT. Not to mention the added burden of inflation.

“Our material prices are going up, our labor costs are going up. It just puts us in a tough spot. We wanna develop. We just feel like we’re somewhat handicapped by not the having the funding to back that up,” said Scott Thayer, the head engineer with MDOT’s North Region.

“Every aspect of your life is touched by roads. Tourism, they affect agriculture, they affect schools,” Cooper said. “I don’t like to put blame on it, but our legislators have kicked the can down the road ever since I became aware of the situation as manager.”

But this year lawmakers voted to set aside $215 million for emergency road maintenance.

And now, it seems there’s more talk than ever about finding a permanent fix. We sat down with Governor Snyder to find out what he thinks should be done.

“It is a big need. It’s something that we’ve recognized for years. It only got magnified with how bad pothole season is this year,” Snyder said. “We need to invest roughly 1.2 billion dollars state-wide on an annually basis into our roads.”

Just this month the Michigan House voted to spend $450 million more per year on roads.

The proposal would devote more money from the state’s general fund to transportation. Shift from a per-gallon gas tax to one based on price. And also raise the state’s tax on diesel fuel, among other things.

The legislation is now in the hands of the state Senate. But the big question is… Is it enough?

“Well we’re seeing some progress now. The House has come out with a plan that doesn’t fully answer the issue, but I appreciate them coming out with a proposal,” Snyder said.

That plan is only about a third of Snyder’s goal of $1.2 billion. And some lawmakers say we need closer to $2 billion a year. Even if that means every driver paying more in taxes.

Cooper thinks it’s well worth it. “If you drive 15-20 thousand miles a year, you’re paying 38 dollars per month in gas taxes and registration fees. You pay how much for a cell phone? How much for your cable? Without roads, where you gonna go?” he said.

Ultimately, it’s still not clear what lawmakers will do about road funding.

But what is clear, is that the longer we wait to address the roads, the more costly fixing them will be.

“We like to liken it to your roof. If you got a little leak, you spend a few dollars to fix it. But if you wait and don’t fix it, it’s gonna cost you thousands of dollars. And that’s exactly what’s happening to our roads right now,” said Cooper.

As for Roger Steig. He’s not keen on any tax increases. But he is encouraged that repairing Michigan’s roads is finally getting the attention it should.

“Let’s get ’em fixed and let’s go to work. We want more jobs in Michigan, I think that’s a good place to attack that.”

Exactly how Michigan roads are funded is, no doubt, complicated.

For a more in-depth look, go to MDOT’s website. You can find more information in the brochures near the bottom of the page.