More road money a start but not enough

Capital News Service

LANSING — Officials statewide are touting plans to increase state road funding as badly needed — although insufficient — help.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget recommendation for 2019 suggested a $175 million increase for road maintenance, and lawmakers are moving quickly in hopes of getting the money in place for the 2018 construction season.

State and county road maintenance budgets would each get a 39 percent share of the new state money with the remaining 22 percent allocated for municipalities. About $15 million of the state’s share would be used for technology updates, like hydrogen fueling stations.

This could bring relief to local governments that have seen their road conditions deteriorate through a winter of rapid weather shifts.

Cadillac has two state highways and one U.S. highway. M-115 runs through the west side of the city. M-55 used to be signed as Sunnyside Drive, a main road through the downtown area.

While M-55 has since been rerouted to follow U.S. Route 131, which runs along Cadillac’s eastern edge, Sunnyside Drive is still a state road, according to Ken Payne, the operations manager of the city’s Department of Public Works.

The conditions of these roads are “fair to bad,” with the business loop of U.S. 131 that runs through the heart of Cadillac the exception, Payne said. He said the business loop, which serves as the city’s main street, underwent major repairs as recently as 2009 and is in good shape.

Wexford County maintains M-115, while Cadillac is under a maintenance agreement with the state to take care of Sunnyside Drive and the U.S. 131 business loop.

Poor maintenance of state roads can have a negative economic and social impact on the community, Payne said.

“I don’t think anyone wants to build on a bad road,” Payne said, adding that it would deter  economic development. “Of course it also goes onto social media and Facebook — if there’s a bad spot, residents are quick to tell us.”

While local governments await a potential influx of new money, roads continue to crumble. Some officials say they worry that some governments are misusing the funding that’s already available.

An open letter from the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association claims the Isabella County Road Commission’s proposal to build a new headquarters using road funding from a $1.2 billion road-funding package passed in 2015 goes against the intent of that law.

The trade association represents construction companies, including those that do road and bridge products. The letter was posted on its website.

“Anyone can go on the roads and find out that we are not investing enough money in our roads and bridges,” said association Vice President of Government Affairs Lance Binoniemi. “If you ask those lawmakers who passed that bill back in 2015, every intention that they had was to fix our roads and bridges, not to build new buildings.

“I don’t want to suggest that Isabella County doesn’t need a new building — they very well could use a new building — I just want to make sure that we’re all being very transparent with the way we’re using our money,” he said.

The commission’s current headquarters have “dangerous working conditions,” according to Isabella County Road Commission manager Tony Casali.

He listed structural damage, a lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and lead and asbestos contamination among the problems.

Low interest rates on federal funding through the federal Rural Development program — which may rise soon — make this the best opportunity the county may have to move out of its 70-year-old building, Casali said.

“They’re telling us now if that interest rate goes up a half-percent and we wait any longer, we could potentially be paying another $750,000 in interest,” Casali said. “Is our timing right? I don’t know if the timing is ever right when you do a project like this, but over 70 years, I think it’s probably time.”

The commission estimates the project will cost about $10 million, although that was a “best guesstimate” and was likely to shrink, Casali said.

While the additional $175 million in state funds would be a boost for the condition of the roads, it is not a complete solution and represents less than 15 percent of the Department of Transportation’s total spending in 2016.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also voted down a proposal to add another $275 million to the governor’s request.

Casali said that of the $175 million, he expects Isabella County to receive around $530,000 for the 2018 construction season.

“Based on this year, that makes up about 3 percent of my total expenditures,” Casali said when asked whether that was a significant amount. “I think I’ll let you answer that question.”