In a nutshell:

  • At a Lansing event to discuss road funding, much agreement on need and little on fixes.
  • Increased spending, from both 2015 legislation and a 2018 supplemental bump, is ramping up.
  • There’s little appetite to distribute funding to the roads most in need, upending Public Act 51.

As the worst pothole season since the last one continues, the discussion around road repair did the same this week, at a Leader’s Issue Forum sponsored by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Citizens Research Council and MIRS. Tire stores and repair shops are reaping the windfall that comes with battered front-end damage and shredded rubber, but two lawmakers and the state transportation department head didn’t strike a note of urgency in addressing the problem.

L-R, Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle, Rep. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona) and Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) discuss the state’s road-funding issues at a recent event at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

A supplemental-spending bill directing $175 million more to road repair was signed by Governor Rick Snyder the same day “The State of Michigan’s Road and Infrastructure System” convened at the Chamber offices in Lansing. The discussion was measured. Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle told the audience that the new funding is lessening the rate of decline, but will not reverse the trend of deteriorating roads.  

He warned that work is ramping up, but that repairing and rebuilding roads isn’t a hurry-up proposition. Aggregates have to be mined, engineering done and pricing pressures anticipated and planned for, Steudle said. The average motorist, he said, “probably doesn’t have a idea of what it takes” to get highways built or even repaired. While that is cold comfort to motorists aggravated by Third World road conditions in some parts of the state, the work is happening, Steudle said.

Two legislators filled out the panel, both northern Michigan Republicans. Rep. Triston Cole of the 105th District chairs House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Sen. Tom Casperson, from the 38th District, leads that chamber’s Transportation Committee.

Cole said road conditions are a “top three” concern among constituents in his district, but said he believes the state can best catch up on years of neglect by looking to the private sector for unspecified innovation, perhaps through a challenge from government.

“We built some fantastic roads, and band-aids worked for a long time. But now we need rebuilding,” Cole said.

Casperson, in his opening remarks, recalled vowing, as a Lansing freshman representative in 2003, to oppose road spending until MDOT improved, but changed his position in 2015 when Proposal 1, the complicated legislation to increase road funding, was on the ballot. It failed by a wide margin, and Casperson, who ran for Congress later that year, was attacked by fiscal conservatives in his own party and failed to win his primary. Today, he said, as a resident of the Upper Peninsula who lives close to the Wisconsin border, it’s difficult not to notice the difference between the two states’ roads; the Dairy State collects 31 cents per gallon in state gas tax for road repairs and maintenance.

Michigan lags all its neighbors in the Great Lakes region in per-capita investment in roads. Research Council President Eric Lupher directed panelists’ attention to a handout with the numbers: $171 per-capita in Michigan. Next-closest was New York at $221, and the gap with Wisconsin reflected in Casperson’s driving experience was wide – Wisconsin spends $327 per capita.

The panel ran through the oft-cited reasons for Michigan’s difficulty in maintaining its roads and bridges – frequent freeze-thaw cycles, swampy soil, heavy trucks – before defending the latter.

Only 6 percent of Michigan truck traffic is vehicles with the higher weight limits the state allows, i.e., over 80,000 pounds and up to 160,000 pounds, Steudle said. Heavier trucks must carry the weight over more axles, and doing so lessens wear and tear on pavement, he said. Casperson and Cole, both former truck drivers, agreed.

“If trucks are the problem, why are roads falling apart everywhere?” Steudle asked.

For a topic that has made so many Michigan drivers incandescent with rage over unexpected repair bills, the questioning from the audience was polite. A question about whether the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan might offer hope, Cole said block grants would be welcome. Casperson said federal oversight would be “another layer we don’t need.”

Lupher asked about two topics recently addressed in Council research: Diversifying local-option taxes and the efficacy of Public Act 51, which holds road funding to a statewide distribution formula. Cole and Casperson, both conservatives, waved off both. Cole feared “a patchwork of local laws” if cities and counties had more taxing options, and both said they believed PA 51 was an efficient way to distribute funds throughout Michigan. With road funding neglected for so long, Casperson said, PA 51 becomes more tightly held than ever, because at least it’s something for remote areas in Michigan.

Other topics discussed included:

Technology. Steudle said Michigan universities will become vital partners in road building as autonomous-vehicle tech continues to grow, particularly in sensors and higher-tech road building. Casperson said “bendable cement” may be on the horizon, along with flexible rebar made of fiber instead of steel.

Autonomous vehicles. They’re coming, but don’t believe the hype, said Steudle: It’ll be years before they’re in wide use outside of major metropolitan areas. Cole mentioned the effect they’re likely to have on the trucking industry.

Registration fees and gas taxes. Electric- and hybrid-vehicle owners pay more to register their cars, to balance the fact they’ll pay less in gas taxes. Steudle said EV owners are paying their fair share: “I didn’t believe it until I ran the numbers.”

Recycling mine waste. Casperson suggested MDOT look into using tailings from Upper Peninsula iron mining operations to provide the aggregate underlayment of new roads.

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