Transportation boss pushes funding, innovation to fix Michigan roads

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Paul Ajegba

Lansing — Michigan Department of Transportation Director Paul Ajegba’s ability to “fix the damn roads” for his boss will depend on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ability to secure more money for crumbling infrastructure.

But as he works with Whitmer to develop her forthcoming funding proposal, the 29-year department veteran says he also wants to use his experience to push innovations, efficiencies and transparency in state spending.

“Regardless of how much funding we get, we’re going to have to continue to raise the bar on innovation,” Ajegba told The Detroit News in a Wednesday interview.

Innovation is a calling card for the 57-year-old Ann Arbor resident. A civil engineer by trade, Ajegba rose through the ranks at the department and helped lead several major projects, including the state’s first “flex route” on US-23 north of his home town.

The $92 million traffic management system allows the state to open an extra lane on the shoulder of the highway during rush hours, relieving congestion at the oft-clogged artery without actually widening the road, which would have been considerably more expensive.

“That freeway had been over-capacity for a long time,” Ajegba said. “What we realized was it was directional congestion. In the morning, when people are going into Ann Arbor southbound, it’s just a parking lot because you have a lot of vehicles trying to get into the city at the same time, and vice versa in the evening.”

Widening the freeway would have been “very cost prohibitive” and was complicated by the presence of endangered plant and animal species along the corridor, he said. But adding flex lanes has reduced congestion during the busiest times of the day, Ajegba added.

The project won national awards, and MDOT is now considering flex routes on highways around the state, including Interstate 96 between I-275 and US-23 in Oakland and Livingston counties as well as a portion of U.S. 131 in Grand Rapids.

The department is already doing more with less, according to Ajebga, who noted there were 5,000 employees when he joined MDOT three decades ago compared with 2,600 today.

“I think over the years, it’s been obvious that we do not have enough resources to meet our needs,” he said.

Whitmer campaigned on a pledge to fix crumbling roads and proposed increasing state spending by up to $2 billion a year, either through new user taxes or by asking voters to approve long-term borrowing.

The East Lansing Democrat is expected to roll out a road funding plan when she proposes her first budget in March, and road quality is also expected to be a theme of Whitmer’s Feb. 12 State of the State address.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a 2015 road funding law that he championed as the largest investment of its kind in 50 years. But Snyder had initially pushed for a larger increase, and state studies project road quality will continue to deteriorate even after the plan is fully phased in by 2021.

As of 2017, 40 percent of all paved roads that are eligible for federal assistance were rated in poor condition, according to the Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council. Officials say it is significantly more expensive to replace a bad road than it is to maintain a decent one.

“The longer we wait, the more we’re going to be spending trying to maintain the poor roads,” Ajegba said. “More roads that are in good or fair condition are going to go into the poor category, which means your maintenance costs go up.”

The 2015 road funding law increased registration and gas taxes for Michigan motorists, who currently pay nearly 57 cents per gallon in total taxes on gasoline purchases, the ninth highest rate in the country, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

But the costs include the state’s 6 percent sales tax, which is not used to fund roads. Michigan is among a handful of states that apply their sales tax to gasoline.

Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature is unlikely to raise the state’s 26.3-cents-per-gallon unleaded gas tax to fund road repairs, but state House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering has said he is open to a discussion about using existing sales tax collections.

Several lawmakers have also pushed to revisit the 1951 formula that dictates how transportation funding is spread across the state, which is a conversation worth having, Ajegba said.

Whitmer is “working hard” to try to find consensus among legislative leaders as she prepares to unveil her road funding plan, he said.

“It’s coming along well.”