February 10, 2009 at 1:00 am

Bad roads getting worse

Strapped state can't keep up with repairs

LANSING -- There's new evidence that Michigan roads are crumbling faster than they can be fixed.

Facing high repair costs and a funding crunch, a growing number of counties are being forced to cut road maintenance and staff to match their austere budgets. Eight in 10 counties are reducing maintenance and construction, nearly two-thirds are cutting back on replacement of hard-surface roads, and three-quarters are reducing or eliminating equipment purchases, according to a survey by the County Road Association of Michigan released Monday.

A growing number are even returning hard-surfaced roads to gravel. Two years ago, seven of the 83 counties had reverted portions of their paved road networks to gravel. Last year, the number ballooned to 23 -- and another 36 counties indicated it's likely, or possible, that they will do so in the near future, the organization's report said

"It is astounding to see the deterioration of our local road network from year to year," said association director John Niemela. "We are literally reverting to the Stone Age."

In Wayne County, budget woes have been steady over the past three years and important programs cut, said Lorenzo Blount, director of the county's roads.

"Because we don't have a lot of (workers), we can't do the preventative maintenance kinds of things, like crack sealing," said Blount. "We're challenged with trying to stay within our budget while trying to give as much service as we can."

Michigan's Transportation Asset Management Council, which assesses the conditions of roads throughout the state each year, concluded in its most recent report that at current funding levels, roads will continue deteriorating. The report said one-quarter are in poor shape and nearly half will be in poor shape in a decade without more funding.

The federal government may come to the rescue on some roadwork. The $800 billion stimulus package under consideration by Congress would send about $1.2 billion to Michigan for infrastructure projects, including roads, but there are more needs than dollars available, local officials and road building firms have said.

Detroiter Lisa Wilmore says she's afraid that failure to fix bad roads will become a safety issue.

"It puts me at risk and those of others," said Wilmore. "People try to avoid the potholes and end up putting other people lives at risk."

Wilmore said while she understands the "financial constraints" county road commissions face, poorly maintained roads costs motorists more.

"It's a financial burden for drivers," said Wilmore. "We have to replace tires and pay for other repairs when you have a pothole."

Bill Schreck, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the survey is another indication that policymakers must find a better and more stable way to maintain roads. It's a problem faced by every state, but more intense here because of years of underfunding, Schreck said.

"We know that over the last 40 years, Michigan has been among the bottom 10 states in road funding," Schreck said. "County road commissions and other local units of government have to maintain more than 111,000 miles of roads in Michigan, which takes all of their skill and creativity."

Reverting paved roads to gravel is a graphic image that should serve as a wake-up call to legislators, said Niemela.

Hillsdale County has turned five miles of paved roads back to gravel and is considering another mile of that right now. About half the rural county's roads are gravel and half are paved, said county road engineer-manager Stanley Clingerman.

"It's likely they'll never be repaved because they're in poor, rural townships that will never have the funding," Clingerman said. He said repaving roads built in the 1950s and 1960s, many of which have inadequate base materials, costs $200,000 a mile, and many rural townships have annual road budgets of $100,000.

A task force appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm concluded late last year that Michigan no longer can rely on the combination of fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees alone to fund its roads. It said transportation officials need to double their $1.5 billion annual rate of spending on state roads, and that local governments have needs equally as large.

The 19-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax can't keep up with rising costs for concrete, steel and asphalt because vehicles are more fuel-efficient, and higher oil prices are forcing motorists to drive less, the report said.

Lawmakers are expected to debate road funding ideas during the current legislative session, but there's strong sentiment against tax increases with the state in recession.

You can reach Gary Heinlein at (517) 371-3660 or gheinlein@detnews.com">gheinlein@detnews.com.