Study: Michigan’s rural roads rank 18th worst in U.S.

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Seventeen percent of Michigan’s rural roads are in poor condition and 13 percent of the state’s rural bridges are structurally deficient, according to a new study released this week.

The study, by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit transportation research organization TRIP, found that Michigan’s rural road conditions ranked 18th worst in the United States. It found that 26 percent of Michigan’s rural roads are rated in mediocre condition and Michigan’s rate of 2.19 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel is the 24th highest in the nation.

The state ranks 15th worst in the nation for structurally deficient bridges, according to the study released Tuesday.

“Having safe and reliable roads is a continuous challenge for the agriculture industry and Michigan’s rural communities. Farmers, who primarily live in these rural areas, depend on local roads to get their products to and from farm and market,” said Carl Bednarski, president of the Michigan Farm Bureau, in a statement.

“Posted bridges with reduced weight limits requires vehicles transporting commodities to take burdensome detours, while crumbling roads add to maintenance cost and risk damaging valuable produce. These factors increase costs for farmers, consumers and other in our nation’s food system. Adequate investment in transportation infrastructure is vital to the continued prosperity of the agriculture industry in Michigan.”

Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the report “reflects what Gov. (Rick) Snyder and state and local transportation leaders have been saying” about the lack of adequate funding from Washington and previous administrations in Lansing for roads and bridges in Michigan.

“Maintaining roads and bridges in Michigan, and most states, remains a challenge after decades of under investment,” he said. “Michigan’s 2015 funding package was a good start, as legislative leaders said at the time. But the new funding will only slow the decline, not head it off entirely.”

Most rural roads and bridges in Michigan and other states are owned by counties and local municipalities.

Denise Donohue, director of the Michigan County Roads Association, which represents 83 of the state’s county road agencies, said about 90,000 of Michigan’s 122,280 miles of roads are owned by county road associations. Only 36,500 miles of the state’s total road network are eligible for federal aid from the U.S. government, according to MDOT.

“Michigan has the fourth largest number of local roads in the U.S.,” she said. “Studies are pretty consistently saying that Michigan needs $2.2 billion worth of funds to bring our roads up to what it should be, which is probably to an 80 to 85 percent good rating. We’ve just got through the Legislature $1.2 billion, so half of what we need, but it won’t be there until 2021.”

The TRIP group said Michigan’s rankings were part of a national finding that showed “America’s rural transportation system is in need of repairs and modernization to support economic growth in the nation’s heartland, which is a critical source of energy, food and fiber.”

“The safety and quality of life in America’s small communities and rural areas and the health of the nation’s economy ride on our rural transportation system,” said Will Wilkins, executive director of TRIP, in a statement. “The nation’s rural roads and bridges provide crucial links from farm to market, move manufactured and energy products, and provide access to countless tourism, social and recreational destinations.

“Fixing the federal Highway Trust Fund with a long-term, sustainable source of revenue that supports the transportation investment needed will be crucial to the modernization of our rural transportation system.”

The traditional source for U.S. transportation funding has been revenue collected by the federal gas tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon, that is paid in the nation’s Highway Trust Fund. The federal government usually spends about $50 billion per year on roads, but the gas tax only brings in $34 billion. The gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and there is little appetite in Washington for taking a vote to do so now.

Congress has turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the infrastructure funding gap, most recently transferring $70 billion to help cover five years worth of transportation spending that is currently set run out in 2020.

Kathleen Bower, AAA senior vice president of public affairs and international relations, said the findings of the study on rural road conditions show that U.S. lawmakers need to act fast to improve the quality of the nation’s infrastructure. She noted the traffic fatality rate on the rural, non-interstate roads in the U.S. is approximately two-and-a-half times higher than it is on all other roads in the nation.

“Rural roads are far too often overlooked. With fatality rates rising, repairing and maintaining the nation’s roads must be a top priority for legislators,” Bower said. “By investing in improvements for today and tomorrow, we can deliver safer experiences for motorists and save tens of thousands of lives.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing