Mich. road commissions beef up pothole repair efforts

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Michigan motorists continue to dodge massive potholes left behind by a vicious freeze-thaw cycle, prompting counties to beef up the number of road workers making repairs.

July 27th 2015: Summit Drive in Waterford is a road full of potholes. It runs from Elizabeth Lake Road on the south to Pontiac Lake Road to the north. Along Summit Drive is the home of Sams Club and a local Chevrolet dealership and a few other small businesses in the Summit Crossing strip mall. On the northern end of Summit Drive is the Oakland County Schools offices. Its also within a couple hundred yards of the Oakland County Road Commission. Photo by Charles V. Tines, The Detroit News.

The Macomb County Department of Roads, Wayne County Department of Public Services and the Road Commission for Oakland County recently added workers and extended shifts, among other efforts.

“The potholes are extremely bad because the season started in January instead of March,” said Leo Ciavatta, maintenance supervisor for the Macomb County Department of Roads. “We’re very limited in what we can use because of the time of the year, so we’re using cold patch but will switch to hot asphalt in April, which will solidify and should last until next winter.”

Ciavatta said they’ve hired extra help, and around 70 people are working seven days a week, 10 hours a day.

“We’ve been so overwhelmed with potholes, we’ve hired private contractors, and we’ve also got help from the Department of Public Works in several cities, including Sterling Heights and Warren.”

Beverly Watts, Wayne County Department of Public Services director, said the department has been “bringing in more support and extending hours to help address this in the short term, but over the long haul, the state desperately needs to develop a strategy to fund a long-term solution.”

The county is tapping an outside contractor with supplemental crews to patch Wayne County roads. They’ve also hired 60 part-time, seasonal staff and are extending road crew hours for patching from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, an additional 24.5 hours per week.

The Road Commission for Oakland County also is busy.

“The true root cause of the severe pothole problem is Michigan’s decades-long road-funding crisis that has crippled road-agency efforts to repair roads. However, we are taking every step within our power to address this challenge,” Chairman Eric Wilson said in a statement. “We know that this situation is creating a burden for motorists, and we are doing everything we can to alleviate that.”

The Road Commission has extended shifts for pothole crews, including some starting as early as 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. to work on roads that are lighted. Other crews work into the evening. Road officials also are keeping part-time, temporary winter employees, hired to help out with plowing and salting, for an extended period to help continue to patch potholes.

Brandon Jerard, left, and Bruce Ball of the Royal Oak highway division prepare to lay tar on potholes on northbound Stephenson Hwy. **Pot holes repairs on I-696 westbound at I-75, and the northbound Stephenson Hwy service drive this morning., February 22, 2018, Detroit, Mi. (Clarence Tabb Jr./The Detroit News)

“We appreciate the public’s patience as we work to patch the potholes,” Wilson added. “As the ground thaws and stabilizes, we’ll see the number of potholes drop significantly. In the meantime, we’ll continue to do everything we can.”

Michigan lawmakers agreed earlier this month to pump an extra $175 million into crumbling roads and transportation projects this year under a supplemental spending bill. The funding should reach local road agencies in time for summer construction work, but experts say it will not fully reverse projected long-term declines in road quality across the state.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, issued a 16-page roads report in 2015 discussing why roads fail and offering solutions.

“Roads need to addressed based on a net life-cycle cost approach, and that higher-quality, longer-lasting roads need to be employed that may cost more upfront but save money in the long run,” he said in an email response to questions. “Traditional cold-patch pothole repair techniques don’t last very long, and spending more for better pothole fixes is a better overall approach.”

Many motorists point to one of Michigan’s southern neighbors, Ohio, asking why its roads aren’t as hazardous.

“There are many parts that must come together to build a cost-effective highway that performs well,” said Matt Bruning, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation. “Design, material selection, material production and construction must all work cohesively, and mistakes in any part can result in poor performance.”

Bruning said material selection for pavement is just one piece of the puzzle.

“The current condition, age, cost, traffic levels, location and performance are all taken into account to develop a strategy for working on our highways,” he said.

But it has not exactly been a smooth ride on Ohio’s roads either this year.

“We have seen a lot of freeze-thaw due to wide-ranging temperatures,” Bruning said. “Those weather conditions can cause damage to our pavement, especially older sections, and that's what we're battling right now.”

Jeff Cranson, Michigan Department of Transportation’s spokesman, said all the chatter boils down to one issue: money.

“It is a myth that there is some vast difference between the specs for Michigan contractors and those in other states,” Cranson said. “Michigan spends less on roads than the other Great Lakes states. Ohio, with a similar-sized system, spends $1 billion more a year, and it shows.”

He also is not satisfied with the state’s road conditions.

“We are all frustrated by the road conditions brought on by this incredibly volatile winter and the unusual swing in temperatures and more-than-usual freeze-thaw cycles, then a deluge of rain,” Cranson said.

The theory that Michigan’s specifications and material selection are the cause of the road conditions is unfounded, according to Daniel DeGraaf, executive director of the Michigan Concrete Association.

“The real problem is that we have too many roads that were designed to last for 20-25 years that are now going on 35-50 years old,” DeGraaf said.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, explained the different levels of road repair and reconstruction and how they can confuse motorists.

“People drive on bad roads and say, ‘This road was just redone,’ when in reality, it has simply been resurfaced and is not expected to last more than about five or 10 years,” he said. “A full reconstruction may last 30-40 years.”

Cole also has dodged potholes in Lansing.

“Gosh darn it, I have to drive these roads, too,” he said.

Report a pothole

Use MDOT's Report a Pothole form or call (888) 296-4546 to report potholes on state roads. Most state roads begin with M, I or US designations (I-75, M-28, US-23, etc.).