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MDOT: State roads will get worse despite $1.2B aid deal

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan roads will continue to deteriorate despite pending fuel taxes and registration fee increases approved last year by the Legislature, according to projections from the state Department of Transportation.

A new department report suggests 54 percent of state trunk lines, including interstates and other highways, will remain in good or fair condition by 2025, down from 82 percent this year even with the planned funding bump.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed a road funding package in November that is expected to generate $1.2 billion a year for state, county and local transportation infrastructure by the time it is fully implemented in 2021. About a quarter of the total, or about $300 million, would go to the state trunk line fund.

That money will “go a long ways” toward maintaining state roads, MDOT Chief Operations Officer Mark Van Port Fleet said Thursday in testimony before a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees.

“We’re very thankful for the money we got … but the results of our predictive model is that the condition of pavement is going to continue to decline,” Van Port Fleet said. “It’s going to slow the decline.”

The projected decline prompted consternation from Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, who was sworn in this month after winning a special election to fill a vacant seat in the state House.

“It may stop us from falling off a cliff, but we’ve still got a ski slope,” LaGrand said of the road funding deal that was approved before he took office.

The MDOT pavement condition projections were included in a new “roads innovation task force report” required under the new state law and linked to $100 million a year in transportation funding that will initially be placed into a “lock box.”

Legislators will have the option to release the money when they are satisfied that the state transportation department has thoroughly explored or implemented methods to build longer-lasting roads.

“We’ll continue, as a body, to look at things that are important; infrastructure is one of them,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, who had not seen the new road condition projections.

“We’re also going to ask MDOT to be more efficient, to find materials and construction that actually make things last longer. We’re going to hold them to that.”

50-year roads ‘not feasible’

The new road funding law tasks MDOT with evaluating materials and construction techniques that could allow it to build roads that last up to 50 years.

The department, in a new report to the Legislature, described methods to build longer-lasting roads but said doing so would require significant upfront costs, which would limit its ability to maintain current road conditions.

MDOT can adopt methods to make roads last longer, but investing in roads designed to last 50 years is “not a financially feasible alternative,” Van Port Fleet said.

State trunk lines are typically designed to last 20 years, but he said they can often last 34 or 35 years if properly maintained.

It costs the state about $2 million per lane mile to reconstruct a 20-year design life road, according to MDOT, but it would cost $4.7 million for a 50-year road.

The up-front costs would add up. MDOT projects that over the first 10 years, reconstructing all state trunk lines with a 20-year design would cost $15 billion, compared with $140 billion for a 50-year design.

Longer-lasting roads would save about $7 billion over a 50-year period, according to MDOT, but the state would not see any savings for at least two decades.

“What we’re currently doing ultimately costs more,” Van Port Fleet said. “If we build better roads over a longer period of time, it will cost less, but the issue is whether we can get to that point.”

Senator questions assumptions

State Sen. Mike Shirkey, who proposed the $100 million a year “Roads Innovation Fund” and 50-year design study, praised MDOT for preparing the new analysis but questioned some underlying cost assumptions.

“I want them to operate with an unlimited imagination and then find out as a result of that: What are the things we’re missing because of the forced-upon-us paradigm of a limited budget?” said Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

MDOT is expected to provide legislators with a final “roads innovation task force” report in June. The document is expected to inform the Legislature as it considers whether to release an additional $100 million in road funding that will begin accruing next year, when gas taxes and registration fees begin to rise.

Shirkey, who previously described the Roads Innovation Fund as a “lock box,” offered a different characterization Thursday in his own testimony before the transportation committees.

“It’s a gate,” he said. “Today is the day in which you are handed the key to this locked gate. Through this gate is where we determine whether or not we’ve challenged ourselves … on whether or not we can build roads and infrastructure that lasts longer.”


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