Despite $1.2 billion state road fund, don’t expect better Lansing streets this year

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By Alexander Smith
Listen Up Lansing Staff Reporter

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s signing of a $1.2 billion road funding package in 2015 is good news for Michigan’s roads. Most notably, the package will raise the fuel tax and the cost of vehicle registration to put toward road repair. For Lansing’s streets, those repairs are long overdue.

Olds Road, an example of one of the many local streets in disrepair. Photo by Alex Smith.

Olds Road, an example of one of the many local streets in disrepair. Photo by Alex Smith.

“They’re okay, they could use some improvement though,” said Preston Nowsch, 22. “I know every day coming down Grand River, I have to be in a particular lane to miss out on a pothole.”

Lansing adopted the Pavement Surface Evaluation & Rating System in 2002 to grade local roads. According to the 2015-16 PASER map, East Grand River Avenue has a rating of two. The majority of Lansing roads are in similar condition.

“We have over 220 miles of streets that are rated between one and three, which is the lowest rating we have,” said Lansing Public Service Director Chad Gamble. “The roads are in poor condition, they need to be reconstructed.”

The Lansing Operations and Maintenance Division is aware. Superintendent Victor Rose said the division is not able to keep up.

“We are just a responsive maintenance department, not a proactive one,” said Rose. “We don’t have the staff, money or equipment to be proactive yet. That’s going to come back as the economy improves and our revenues increase. That’s the only way it’ll come back.”

Rose said Michigan’s weather makes any repairs temporary until May. Constant freezing and thawing cracks pavement and undoes roadwork in a short time.

2015-16 PASER ratings for Lansing streets. Courtesy of the City of Lansing.

2015-16 PASER ratings for Lansing streets. Poor roads are colored red. Courtesy of the City of Lansing.

“[Lansing roads] are not great, there are a lot of potholes,” said Sarah Rockhill, 31. “They are in desperate need of repair, but that’s kind of the norm across Michigan, so I don’t know if they are better or worse than any other city.”

Rockhill has been lucky enough to only have a couple wheel alignments on her car due to poor roads. But poor roads don’t just harm vehicles, they can also endanger lives.

“This wasn’t in Lansing, but a former colleague of mine was killed on the road when his bike hit a pothole,” said Rockhill. “He was thrown from his bike and a car hit him.”

With the road funding package, revenue for city streets will grow, but not immediately. According to the state Senate’s fiscal analysis of the package, revenue for cities and villages will total $68.4 million by fiscal year 2017. Once divvied up, there won’t be much for Lansing, and according to Rose, it won’t make a significant difference anyway.

“There is a millage currently in effect that’s about to sunset in a year, and that money’s going to go away at about the same time the governor’s new money is coming in,” said Rose. “Residents are going to think, ‘Hey we got a new gas tax, why are we not rebuilding the roads?’ Well we’re not really gaining anything this first year.”

Lansing O & M’s street section uses funds dedicated to major and local streets. The current millage adds $1.9 million to the Local Streets Special Revenue Fund, which totals $7 million for fiscal year 2016. Losing the millage means losing more than 25 percent of that revenue.

“A lot of communities like Grand Rapids have assessments or income taxes they devote to roads,” said Rose. “We don’t have that here.”

Rose said a blue-collar city like Lansing is unlikely to dedicate an income tax to roads. However, it would be more even-handed than a millage, which only affects property owners. Rose, who has worked for the City of Grand Rapids, said its residents approved a  2014 income tax extension partly because it made commuters pay up too. But for now, Rose just wants the current millage to stay put.

“I’ve already told the mayor and the director that at a minimum, we need to pursue the voters extending the millage already in place so we can keep that money in addition to the new money,” said Rose. “Then we can actually start doing something they’ll visually notice out in the streets.”

Gamble agreed there won’t be enough money going around. The state package is a step in the right direction, he said, but the 7.3 cent gas tax increase isn’t enough.

“You’re going to pay for it either way,” said Gamble. “Do you want to scale it to every time you pay at the pump, or do you want a big repair that blows out your front end? I know what I would choose, I would choose the incremental one.”