We’ve Got Issues: One-third of northern Michigan roads are in 'poor' condition

Apr 2, 2018

Michigan’s roads are falling apart.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state a D- letter grade for the condition of its roads in a report released last month.

In northern Michigan, things are pretty bad. Many municipalities don’t have the money to pay for all the repairs that are needed, and that means roads are getting worse in some areas.  

 

Eighth Street woes

Traverse City’s Eighth Street is full of potholes and cracks that get worse with the freezing and thawing of winters in northern Michigan. 

City officials gave a stretch of Eighth Street a "poor" rating last year when they did an inventory of Traverse City’s roads. 

Neal Horning is standing at the corner of Eighth and Wellington Street. The retired Army officer just walked out of a shop.

Neal Horning lives in Long Lake Township.
Credit David Cassleman

“Eighth Street needs to be taken down to subsurface and redone completely,” Horning says. “Just doing blacktop over the top of it is not going to work. This should be a priority because this is one of the main streets to get through town.”

Horning lives out in Long Lake Township. He volunteers with a number of organizations for veterans.  

Horning says the roads are in bad shape no matter where you go in Michigan.

“I would think there’d be enough money if they would have maintained them through the years,” Horning says. “They just let it go and put the money somewhere else, and now we’re trying to play catch up.”

Eighth Street is the responsibility of Traverse City, and city leaders are finally moving forward with plans to completely rebuild part of the road. 

It’s part of a huge project that’s estimated to cost more than $10 million and will take years to finish.

Michigan lags behind

There are many roads in bad shape across the region.

“It essentially all comes down to availability of funding,” says Mike Woods, a regional planner with the group Networks Northwest. 

The group says about one-third of the roads in the area are in poor shape.

The roads are even worse in some other parts of Michigan, like in Metro Detroit. 

Woods says the trend is the number of good roads is going down, while the number of roads in fair or bad shape is going up.

“For the past 50 years Michigan has ranked in the lowest ten states in the country for investment in roads,” Woods says. “And if you look at some of the other Great Lakes states, Minnesota invests about $275 per capita more in roads than Michigan. Indiana spends about $289 [per capita more].”

GT County 'a model agency'

Each city and county in the area deals with its own road repairs. 

So while Traverse City handles Eighth Street, Grand Traverse County has its own responsibilities. 

Mike Woods says the Grand Traverse Road Commission is a model agency for the entire state.  

“They have a real clear and concise plan essentially for how to proceed with the funding they have and what fixes are necessary in order to sustain a viable level of roads in their county,” Woods says. 

Grand Traverse County also has a specific millage to pay for road repairs. Not every municipality has that. 

That’s money in addition to what comes from the state and federal government. The millage will bring in nearly $4 million this year. 

Road Commission Manager Jim Cook says the millage, along with some other changes, has made a big difference.   

“We’ve seen a huge improvement and hopefully our residents have as well,” Cook says. “I do hear from a lot of people in the public who are saying they’re seeing the difference.”

The county developed a plan before asking voters for the millage in 2013. The goal was to get 80 percent of the county’s roads in good or fair condition within 20 years. 

Cook says the county might be able to reach that goal within ten years, because they’re getting more money than they’d expected. 

But he says that doesn’t mean the county can get complacent.

“With the winters we have and the sun and just the deterioration of pavement, it’s a never-ending cycle,” Cook says. 

The 2015 roads overhaul

Grand Traverse County is also getting more money from the state these days. 

If you remember, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a roads funding overhaul a few years ago that will bring in an estimated $1.2 billion a year by 2021. 

State lawmakers raised the gas tax and vehicle registration fees, and also promised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the general fund on roads.

That additional contribution is scheduled to begin this next fiscal year.   

Rep. Larry Inman (R-Traverse City) represents Grand Traverse County.

He’s worried the state might not be able to afford that contribution.

“We’ve got to grow this economy, get people back in Michigan, more employers back in Michigan ... to try to create more revenue so we can actually make that promise,” Inman says. 

The future of road funding

The governor is now calling on U.S. Congress to send the states more money for roads. He wants lawmakers to raise the federal gas tax.

Inman says he has mixed feelings about that idea because state lawmakers already raised the state gas tax.

“I understand where the governor is coming from,” Inman says. “He’s trying to figure out, ‘if I’ve got a flat budget and we’re underfunding a lot of areas of state government, and we’re trying to find every area we can to devote extra funds to state roads … where are we going to find the money?'”

The state legislature did find a little extra money for the roads last month – $175 million. 

Grand Traverse County will get about $800,000 extra this year. That’s money that could pay for road repairs as soon as this summer.