Some highway maintenance done by private firms

By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan’s roads are rated D- this year by the newest American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card.

That’s drawing attention to the fact that state and local transportation agencies are contracting with private firms for road maintenance rather than relying solely on public workers.

The report card rates 39 percent of Michigan’s 120,000 miles of paved roadways in poor condition, 43 percent in fair condition and only 18 percent in good condition.

Road maintenance always has a funding shortage, and contracting out road maintenance to private companies could provide “a more cost-effective value for taxpayers,” said Mark Christensen, the superintendent and manager of the Montcalm County Road Commission.

Road maintenance has to be a public-private partnership, Christensen said.

“There are things we can do more efficiently as a public agency and there are things that can be done more efficiently by a private contractor,” he said.

“Each road agency has to look at all options in the best interest of taxpayers,” Christensen said. “Do a cost-benefit analysis for what you are doing in your organization and outsource the work when it is in your best interest.”

In Barry County, a high percentage – an estimated 74.2 percent of the road budget – passes through to vendors and contractors, according to Brad Lamberg, the managing director of the Barry County Road Commission.

The remaining budget is for the road commission employees who do snow removal, construction, maintenance, equipment repair, engineering and administration, Lamberg said.

“We use contractors where their cost is lower than us, and we try to use our own workforce when our cost is lower,” he said.

It’s an effective way to help do certain services, Lamberg said, “but it’s definitely not going to solve any road condition problem.”

Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in most cases, outsourcing to the private sector is going to result in a lower price and a better result for the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

“Anytime that you introduce a bid, or go out for bids in the private sector for this work, you are going to introduce competitiveness for the price,” Cole said.

He said the standards for the private sector and the Department of Transportation (MDOT) are the same. If the work isn’t being done to the standards laid out in the bid, there will be problems with that contractor, and it’s highly unlikely that contractor would be used again.

“Particularly, part of the contractors want to do the best jobs possible and exceed the criteria laid out in the bid, so they are considered in the next bid,” Cole said.

For Cole, the challenge is to ensure that dollars going directly into roads are spent properly.

But outsourcing of road maintenance services comes with other concerns.

According to Ken Moore, the president of the Michigan State Employees Association, MDOT employees are the most affected by contracting out. The union represents those workers.

“There are many negative consequences, which include unqualified staff, high turnover, lack of oversight, poor management, multiple scandals and escalating costs,” Moore said by email. “Contracting out road maintenance to private companies would just be the latest privatization attempt in a long list of debacles.”

Christensen said all road agencies need to build working relationships with the contractors that they work with.

“It is our responsibility to make sure the contractor provides a quality service,” he said. “As in any industry, there are private contractors that provide superior service, and some that don’t.”

In Allegan County, the only outsourced road maintenance is some snow plowing of subdivision roads.

“We still apply salt and sand as needed with our own equipment,” said Phil Kernodle, the maintenance superintendent of the Allegan County Road Commission.

Kernodle said his concern is the level of service provided by the private sector, though the road commission does provide supervision.

“We don’t operate to make a profit, while private companies do. We operate with the goal to provide the best service to the road system,” he said.

He said he doesn’t believe outsourcing to private companies is the best way to solve problems related to a funding shortage and road maintenance.

“Additional funding for improvements would help us improve the roads to good condition, which I feel is the way that best reflects taxpayer priorities,” Kernodle said.

According to MDOT’s five-year plan, $8.2 billion, including routine maintenance, will be invested in the 2018-22 Highway Program, which focuses on preserving the road system through the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges.

In fiscal year 2018, MDOT will invest $1.6 billion on highways, including $317.6 million on routine maintenance, according to the plan.

Barry County’s Lamberg said the state waited too long between 1997 and 2017 to increase revenue for road agencies.

Increasing road funding significantly once every 20 years, rather than annually and gradually, promotes the poor results we have in Michigan,” he said.

That neglect destroyed too much of Michigan’s infrastructure, and recent funding increases approved by the Legislature and governor aren’t enough to catch up, he said.