Winter wreaks havoc on Michigan roads as funding debate looms

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Water fills a pothole on the I-94 service drive near John R in Detroit Sunday.

Lansing — Winter storms and extreme cold are making a mess of Michigan roads, but it’s thaws like the one this past weekend that have experts concerned about crumbling concrete and the potential for another massive pothole season this spring.

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer prepares to unveil her plan to “fix the damn roads,” potholes have already forced lane closures on Interstate 75 in Troy and spurred early talks of another short-term spending bill while officials debate a longer-term fix.

“I think as we see a thaw in the spring, there will be a pressing desire to see another supplemental sent to the roads,” said House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, referring to the $175 million road supplemental bill spent last year. “Listen, when we’re talking about fixing our crumbling infrastructure, all options need to be on the table.”

But Whitmer has warned that a $1.3 billion supplemental spending bill approved in late December by the Republican-led Legislature and former Gov. Rick Snyder could complicate the push for another temporary road repair Band-Aid.

“That’d be easier to answer if the Legislature didn’t spend $1.3 billion on their last day of session last year,” Whitmer said last Monday when asked about the prospect of additional one-time money. “Obviously, the state of our infrastructure is a part of what I ran on, and it will be a part of not just my State of the State (address), but the budget presentation, too.”

Whitmer is scheduled to deliver her first State of the State address Feb. 12 before detailing her long-term road funding plan in March when she unveils her first executive budget proposal, which she’ll negotiate with lawmakers in subsequent months.

Lawmakers have routinely approved supplemental road funding bills in recent years as the state phases in a $1.2 billion road funding plan that Snyder signed in 2015 and will be fully implemented by 2021.

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer fills a pothole Monday, Aug. 6, 2018 during a campaign event in Southfield, Mich.

The $1.3 billion spending bill Snyder signed Dec. 28 in a flurry of last-minute moves earmarked $114 million in additional funding for Michigan roads and bridges this fiscal year, including $24.9 million for cities and villages and $44.6 million each to county road commissions and state trunk lines.

“Every little bit that we get helps,” said new Michigan Department of Transportation Director Paul Ajegba, who declined to say whether the administration will pursue another supplemental spending bill while Whitmer negotiates her larger plan.

“I think the governor will release her plan when she’s ready,” Ajegba said.

I-75's pothole blow-up

State transportation officials on Wednesday temporarily closed multiple lanes on northbound Interstate 75 near Big Beaver and Livernois roads due to a rash of potholes. Earlier in the day, the department warned motorists to “use caution” to avoid two large potholes in the right lane of I-75 at Crooks.

Potholes sidelined about a dozen cars on I-75 the prior week, and Michigan State Police last Monday warned motorists to “expect these potholes to pop up all the way until the road construction begins in March."

The Oakland County portion of the interstate is not the only magnet for potholes, but “that particular blow-up and the magnitude of that pavement is unique,” said Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for MDOT.

“Really, we’re not even talking about potholes,” Cranson said of the recent pavement breakups. “That kind of undersells what’s happening on I-75.”

The interstate was first paved in the 1960s. It’s been patched and paved, but never rebuilt.

That began to change in 2016 with a reconstruction of I-75 between Coolidge Highway and South Boulevard that included a revamping of the Square Lake Road interchange. It will continue this spring as MDOT is slated to upgrade I-75 north of 13 Mile to near Coolidge as part of a widening and reconstruction project.

M-Dot workers put barriers on the left southbound lane of I-75 just south of 7 mile road., February 1, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.

“It needs to be rebuilt, and should have been rebuilt decades ago if Michigan wasn’t in a decades-long infrastructure funding crisis,” Cranson said. “Our folks pushed it as far as they could to get as much service life as they could, and now you’re seeing the results of that.”

While Snyder championed the 2015 road funding law as the largest investment of its kind in 50 years, he 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.

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 told The Detroit News earlier this week. “More roads that are in good or fair condition are going to go into the poor category, which means your maintenance costs go up.”

'Huge issue' for locals looms

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 those 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.

A bipartisan group of former lawmakers on Thursday proposed raising the state's 26.3-cents-per-gallon gas tax by 47 cents over nine years to eventually generate $2.7 billion a year in new revenue for roads, essentially the same amount recommended last year by Snyder's 21st Century Infrastructure Commission.

The Republican-led Legislature is unlikely to approve major gas tax hikes, but Chatfield has said he is open to a discussion about redirecting existing sales tax collections.

Officials say it is too early to project how volatile the 2019 pothole season will be. Freezing cold temperatures that blanketed the state this past week aren’t the problem.

It’s when temperatures cycle between freezing and thaws, causing pavement to contract and expand — and eventually crack, filling with melting snow or rain — that can create larger issues. 

“If we come out of this polar vortex and get some thaws and some real rain, you’ll see other pavement breaking up around the state,” Cranson said. “It’s going to be a huge issue for the locals, obviously, for local streets and cities that have been underfunded for years.”

Weather experts say that exact scenario could play out in coming days as the bitter cold front gave way  Sunday to temperatures above 50; temperatures are expected to be near 50 Monday, with rain in parts of the Lower Peninsula.

Royal Oak city officials on Friday warned that the warm weather after record cold will likely lead to both potholes and water main breaks. “Expect a rash of potholes to break out next week,” the city said, promising to attack the road menaces “systematically.”

Michigan’s run of difficult pothole seasons is not just about the weather, said Lane Binoniemi, vice president of government affairs and a registered lobbyist for the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, which represents road and bridge builders.

“This situation isn’t unique to 2019,” he said. “We’ve had weather like this throughout our history. We’ve under-invested in our roads, and with the normal wear and tear, the weather is going to impact that even further.”

Waiting on Whitmer

Binoniemi said he has not yet heard officials discussing plans for a shot-term spending bill as Whitmer prepares to unveil her long-term plan.

“I think everyone is waiting for the governor’s proposal,” he said. “She’s been very good at keeping stuff close to the vest. We’re not sure what she’s proposing.”

On the campaign trail, Whitmer hinted at the potential for new user fees, such as gas taxes and registration fees that were increased as part of the 2015 road funding law. If the Legislature is unwilling to raise taxes to fund additional repairs, she could also ask voters to approve borrowing in the form of long-term bonds.

“We can’t kick the can down (the road) any longer,” Whitmer said this past week. “It’s endangering our people, and it’s compromising our ability to grow our economy and lure investment into Michigan. That’s why it’s something I talked about for the last year. It’s something I am determined to get done.”

But bonding isn't a good idea to former state Sen. Bob Emerson, D-Flint, who is part of the bipartisan group pushing a 47-cent spike in the gas tax.

Bonding is “one of your less desirable options, because it ends up costing you more when you borrow the money and you have to pay it back with interest,” Emerson said. “You’ll get a lot of work done up front, but you’re stealing from the future to pay for the work that’s going to be done today.”

Ajegba, who is helping Whitmer develop her plan, declined to discuss details but said his department is preparing to implement whatever the governor proposes and is able to negotiate with the Legislature.

The efforts extend beyond just state government, he said, noting that contractors will need extra equipment, materials and workers to meet pent-up demand.

 “Not just the department — the industry as a whole,” Ajegba told The News. “The contractors, the consulting industry, because there will be an influx of projects that we need to get done over a period of time.”

(517) 371-3662