Plan to coordinate roadwork expected soon

Capital News Service

LANSING — A pilot program looking for better ways to coordinate the repair, maintenance and replacement of Michigan’s roads and other infrastructure is finishing its recommendations this month.

The recommendations will address ways to implement the program statewide, improving efficiency and saving money. Under the “integrated asset management” concept, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the state expects all private and public entities involved in public infrastructure to work together to handle projects more efficiently.

For example, Calley said, consider a hypothetical road being repaved in front of the Capitol. Under integrated asset management, all necessary improvements such as water, sewer, cable lines and sidewalks would be coordinated so road is torn up only once.

“It’s the same concept as if you’re having your driveway repaved at the same time that they’re repaving the road in front of your house. It would be a lot cheaper because the equipment and materials are already there,” Calley said. “We think there can be substantial savings.”

Therese Empie, a strategy advisor for Gov. Rick Snyder, was a member of the governor’s

21st Century Infrastructure Commission. It looked across the state to figure out what Michigan needs to do to have a world-class modern infrastructure in the next 30-50 years.

“Currently, infrastructure in Michigan exists in silos,” Snyder’s executive directive reads. “There are 700 separate road and drain agencies; 79 transit agencies; 1,390 drinking water systems; 1,080 wastewater systems; 116 electric utilities; 10 natural gas utilities and 43 broadband providers.”

The pilot program, which started in 2017, grew out of a commission recommendation, Empie said. Empie said Michigan is the first state to undertake a program like this.

The long-term goal is for asset management to result in coordination and cost efficiencies for public and private utilities, Empie said.

The pilot program includes 153 participating governmental units in two of the state’s regions, Empie said. The West Michigan region covers 13 counties, including Ionia, Lake, Mecosta, Mason, Oceana, Montcalm, Ottawa, Kent, Allegan, and the Southeast Michigan region covering Metro Detroit participated.

“We had communities as small as a few hundred people participating, to large communities like Grand Rapids,” Empie said.

The pilot program’s recommendations are due to Snyder by the end of the month, Empie said, and the pilot’s final report will be released to the public on May 4.

A bill introduced by Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker to create a Michigan Infrastructure Council to oversee implementation of a statewide asset management system has passed the House, Empie said, and has been sent to the Senate Transportation Committee.

“It’s a lot of exciting work, and we can do it,” Empie said. “It’ll take a little bit of time, but we have a lot of passionate people here who are very knowledgeable throughout the state and at every level of government that are definitely gonna work to get it done.”

Boating is up, and so are accidents

Capital News Service

LANSING – Are Michigan waters getting less safe for boaters, with or without motors?

The number of recreational boating accidents in the state increased from 92 in 2013 to 125 in 2016, and deaths increased from 21 in 2012 to 38 in 2016, according to the latest report from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Accidents are happening on inland waters and on the Great Lakes. Last year, for example, on July 22, a 45-year-old woman was critically injured after a boat crash near Grand Haven.

On Aug. 6, a 23-year-old woman died from injuries caused by being thrown from a tube into another boat on Sand Lake in Clare County.

And on Sept. 17, a 23-year-old Holland man died in a personal watercraft accident on Lake Michigan.

One factor in the rising accident toll is the increasing popularity of paddle sports  — participation is up about 7 percent annually, experts say.

Over the last five years,  the number of powered vessels and paddle craft has grown steadily, said Dennis Nickels of Grand Haven, the chair of the state’s Waterways Commission.

There are more than 600,000 paddle sport vessels in the state, according to the Coast Guard.

“In three years, the number of paddle crafts in Michigan water will exceed the number of powered vessels,” Nickels said.

As a paddling enthusiast for over 40 years, Nickels said he’s  “extremely excited about promoting the paddle sports in Michigan, but we’ve got to find a way to keep them safe.”

July and August are the heaviest boating months, said Jeff Pendergraff, Crawford County’s undersheriff in charge of the Marine Division.

To make sure of boaters’ safety, the Marine Division strengthens its workforce from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, Pendergraff said. “Some officers retired from other places, and they come and work here [for the Marine Division] in the summer to do marine enforcement.”

“Generally, there was an accident and alcohol was involved,” he said, adding that many people aren’t aware they cannot operate a boat well while drinking.

The general things that Crawford County’s Marine Division looks into include whether boaters wear life jackets, checking that they’re not drinking too much and making sure jet skis don’t get too close to swim areas, boats and anchors, Pendergraff said.

Chris Dekker, the chair of West Michigan Offshore, said that to improve boating safety, the Hudsonville-based powerboat club provides members with safety videos and a code of conduct to educate and regulate boaters’ behaviors.

The big factors that cause boating accidents are excess speed and alcohol, Dekker said. “Just staying on the basics and having a healthy fear of what can happen on the water is the key.”

Bike sharing finds a place in more Michigan cities

Capital News Service

LANSING — Some Michigan cities have joined a growing group of communities nationwide  turning to bike share programs.

In 2010 there were only four city-wide systems in the U.S. where residents could rent bicycles. That jumped to 55 systems with 42,000 bikes in 2016, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an organization of 62 major cities and 10 transit agencies.

Even though it is a home to the U.S. auto industry, Michigan is also keeping up with the tide. Detroit, Ann Arbor and Port Huron have launched bike sharing systems. Others are working to make the concept feasible.

“Bike sharing is an interesting idea,” said Amy Sasamoto, the Holland Downtown Development Authority coordinator. Her city surveyed residents  in December 2016 on its website to see if a bike share program is feasible there.

Local bike shops rent bikes to tourists and the downtown area is small, so “a bike share may not be that beneficial to downtown Holland,” Sasamoto said.

Funding is also a problem. “There were some questions as to how the funding could be obtained —  the budget could not support or effectively manage the system,” she said. “The city manager wanted the program to be free, and that made financing the idea difficult as well.”

So the program is on hold as the city looks for other ways to promote biking.

That includes making the downtown safe and accessible for bicyclists.

“Recently we underwent a road reconstruction on one of our main downtown streets, and part of the reconstruction added some bike lanes, and also the shared-lane markings. We put together on a map where those bike lanes are located throughout the city,” Sasamoto said. “We have partnered with some biking groups to do family rides and things like that.”

Meanwhile in Grand Rapids in February, the city commission approved a study to test the feasibility of a bike share program. The study estimated the start-up cost at $300,000.

“Bike share is found in many cities across the United States and is typically part of a larger effort to provide as many transportation options to people as possible,” said Kristin Bennett, the transportation planning and programs supervisor for the city.

A hybrid-type bike share system was approved by the study’s steering committee. The system combines stations and hubs with a “smart” bike that can be docked at hubs/bike racks but can also dock into stations.

“It could offer the most in terms of quality and versatility, especially as a system is initially developed and expanding,” Bennett said.

The study recommended options for single rides, a monthly pass, a student pass and a lower-income pass.

“A cash option for bike share passes would certainly be included,” Bennett said. “Equitable access to a bike share system is a major goal of the study’s steering committee.”

“The most frequent concerns we heard during our public engagement wasn’t against bike share,” she said, “but rather concerns about traffic safety while bicycling and who was responsible if something happened while riding a bike share bike, such as mechanical problems, theft and other damage.”

The Grand Rapids program won’t move forward until the city commission adopts a bicycle action plan to be completed this summer, Bennett said.

It could likely take another year or so to get the system off the ground, she said. “But that is all dependent on a number of factors, including funding, system planning and lead times from equipment providers to get equipment here and installed.

Lindsey DesArmo, the chair of League of Michigan Bicyclists, said safety is a concern for people who bicycle, walk or drive, and isn’t necessarily specific to bike sharing programs.

The league is an advocacy group representing the interests of bicyclists. It has advocated for legislation for safe distances for motorists to pass bicyclists and drivers drivers’ education training to address safety concerns about non-motor transportation.

“As the state becomes more strategic about the mobility of its people, bicycle infrastructure and bike sharing programs play an integral role in providing options for people to move from point A to point B,” DesArmo said.

Rural bicyclists, mindful of road deaths, look for safer measures

Capital News Service

LANSING — For bicyclists, a 2016 crash that killed five and left four injured is still a potent reminder of the importance of protecting non-motorized vehicles that take the road.

“That was an event that has been unprecedented in Michigan history,” said Aneta Kiersnowski, communications director for the League of Michigan Bicyclists. “The attention that the tragedy brought to the issue of bicycling safety really helped bring about positive solutions.”

The crash in rural Cooper Township, north of Kalamazoo, highlighted some of the issues with rural biking that the Legislature and local governments have since aimed to address.

Ten Michigan cities have adopted “complete street” ordinances and resolutions in response to a 2010 law that aimed to make all roads accessible for both motorized and non-motorized traffic. These cities include Manistique, Sault Ste. Marie and Lansing.

However, Kiersnowski said there were factors in that crash that could not have been prevented with improved legislation.

Charles Pickett, Jr., the driver of the pickup truck that hit the nine bicyclists, faces charges including five counts of operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death. Investigators have not determined exactly why Pickett was driving so erratically.

Jury selection for Pickett’s trial is scheduled to start April 23.

Because of the Cooper Township incident — and the rate at which incidents involving motorized vehicles and bicyclists could be prevented — Kiersnowski said the League of Michigan Bicyclists is trying to get people to stop using the word “accident” in reference to those incidents. The organization prefers the term “crash.”

One of the best ways to ensure bicyclists’ safety in rural areas? Maintain dedicated trails, according to Scott Slavin, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) unit manager for William Mitchell State Park and the White Pine Trail.

The White Pine, a 94-mile trail between Comstock Park and Cadillac, runs along the former Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad.

Outside of the snowy season, there is no motorized traffic allowed on the White Pine.

“That’s definitely a safety factor and a comfort factor,” Slavin said. “Most people that use it know that there’s not going to be motor vehicle traffic, so if they’re taking small children they feel comfortable riding bikes down there.”

Kiersnowski said that while rural trails do have their benefits, they may not be as safe as they might seem, given the wide variety of speeds at which walkers, bicyclists and motorized traffic use them.

“They’re not necessarily safer because they are multi-user trails most of the time,” Kiersnowski said. “Although smaller, more rural areas do a lot to build up their trails, it shouldn’t be the end-all be-all for bicycle safety.”

During the winter, a large northern portion of the trail is open to snowmobiles. Slavin said that due to the efforts of the Pere Marquette Snowmobile Club, based in Evart, to maintain the trail — like clearing it of brush for better sight lines — fat-tire bikes and snowmobiles have been able to co-exist without any concerns.

The Snowmobile Club’s efforts are an example of how the DNR partners with local non-profits and volunteer groups to maintain the White Pine Trail, Slavin said.

This collaboration with local organizations on day-to-day maintenance is often necessary, as inconsistent funding from the federal levels can leave parks holding the bill.

The financial uncertainty of the Kal-Haven Trail, which runs between Kalamazoo and South Haven, speaks to that point. The Kal-Haven has gained and lost various features over the years, such as a shuttle program for one-way bikers and a trail pass system to pay for maintenance.

Nearly $50 million in federal funds through the Transportation Alternatives Program were available to the state in fiscal year 2016, according to data compiled by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that preserves unused rail corridors for use as bike trails.

That was up drastically from a 10-year low of just under $10 million in 2009, but below 2006’s peak of $65 million.

This program authorizes funding for programs and projects defined as transportation alternatives, including on- and off-road pedestrian and bicycle facilities, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Are Michigan roads ready for self-driving cars?

By Gloria Nzeka
Capital News Service

LANSING – If you drive or travel on Michigan roads, you know that they’re not in the best of shape. As discussions about automated vehicles increasingly appear in the news, cars and tech enthusiasts may be wondering: If we can’t build roads without potholes, how do we build them for automated cars?

Or: Are Michigan roads ready to accommodate self-driving cars?

“On one level, yes, the roads are ready because those vehicles will have to work on the roads that we have,” said Richard Wallace, director of the Transportation Systems Analysis group within the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

“The driver has to be capable,” Wallace said, referring to the computer system that will pilot automated cars through artificial intelligence, or AI. “That’s why you have driving tests, and we will need some sort of equivalence for AI systems.”

In 2013, Michigan became the fourth U.S. state to regulate the testing of automated vehicles. The legislation was updated in 2016 and manufacturers and suppliers of automated vehicle technology could now test pilot automated cars on public roads. Since then, GM and Google’s automated cars unit – Waymo – have been testing some of their automated vehicles in Michigan.

“A highly automated vehicle can travel across the country, and it uses its sensors to detect pavement markings, signs, physical objects along the road and compares it to its [high-definition] map for comparison to assure itself of its location,” said Kirk Steudle, director of the Department of Transportation.

Steudle said automated vehicles can drive on Michigan’s roads as they are today. However, he said, new technologies should be added to new infrastructure projects.

Wallace said infrastructure needs to adapt to the way automated cars will navigate, because our current signage and lane markings have all been built on the premise of human drivers.

“The way to tell an automated vehicle that the speed limit is 65 is probably not a big white sign with black letters that says 65 on it, that’s not optimal for computer understanding,” Wallace said.

To help meet new automation needs, “public agencies can initially focus on pavement marking quality and technology upgrades to traffic signals when they are being replaced to allow for future adaption,” Steudle said.

Wallace suggested that one way to communicate with automated vehicles on the road will be to put a readable code on the side of the road, or a digital signature emitting a pulse that can be read wirelessly, telling an automated car that 65 is the speed limit.

“At some point, five or 10 years from now, while we have both human and computer driving vehicles, we will need both the sign that says 65 and the digital signature that says 65 to the computer,” Wallace said.

In addition to making roads ready for automated vehicles, Wallace said we need to be sure automated vehicles are ready to be on the road. Wallace said the technology has a ways to go.

“I don’t think we are completely ready to have empty vehicles out there. We’re still testing them with humans to see whether they’re ready and unfortunately that’s not perfect either,” Wallace said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow but it might happen in one year.”

Wallace also said our regulations, law and liability regime are not ready either. Referring to a recent accident in Arizona, where an Uber automated vehicle crushed a pedestrian, he said:

“We don’t really know who’s going to get the liability here. Is it Uber, the driver that was behind the wheel but didn’t react? Some people are saying it’s the woman’s fault, did she jaywalk? I think our legal frameworks are going to have to change.”

How soon automated cars show up on our roads will largely depend on lawmakers. The federal government is working on a certification of Artificial Intelligence systems for driving vehicles, but Wallace said progress is slow.

One of the things that proponents of automated vehicles champion is safety. Steudle said in order to achieve those safety and congestion benefits, the vehicles will need to communicate better with each other and the infrastructure.

Counties get new money to fix roads after tough winter

Capital News Service

LANSING — County road commissions, faced with unexpectedly severe road deterioration, have welcomed additional road funding approved recently by the state.

The Legislature allocated $175 million to the Department of Transportation (MDOT) to spend on summer road maintenance.

“With the spring flood event, we definitely got into the carry-over from last year and we’ll be able to make the repairs we need to without worrying about canceling any projects for this year,” said Chris Minger, the managing director for the St. Joseph County Road Commission.

“If this would have happened a few years back we would have had to cancel quite a few projects,” Minger said.

Counties saw greater road break-up than they budgeted for this winter, said Ed Noyola, the deputy director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

“Generally we don’t allocate for such a multitude of spring breakups, and that’s going to affect most budgets,” Noyola said, “but it’s just going to depend on what part of the state you’re in.

“Counties budget for winter and non-winter maintenance,” Noyola said. “Anything that goes beyond the winter maintenance starts leaking into the non-winter maintenance money in order to fill these potholes — which means they won’t have as much money to make improvements.”

MDOT is scheduled to see a more permanent funding increase of $1.2 billion over the next three years as part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s road funding package passed in 2015.

According to a 2015 report by MDOT, “we needed an additional $2.2 billion annually in order to make substantial improvements,” Noyola said.

“We got $1.2 billion,” Noyola said, “and that won’t be fully phased in until 2021.”

Road commissions are cautious about assuming that the funding will come through.

“With term limits coming up, a lot of the legislators that passed the bill are going to be gone,” said Brian Gutowski, the managing director for the Emmet County Road Commission. “We have to make sure that the new group of representatives and senators that come in are going to follow through.”

If that funding doesn’t come through, “then all my plans to get this 148 miles of roads done will be thrown out the window,” Gutowski said. “We have just enough to keep our head above water and keep the roads in the condition they’re in now.”

Counties receive funding based on the miles of roads, vehicle registrations and population in their counties, Noyola said.

Michigan requires road commissions to perform preventive maintenance on good roads first as part of an asset management plan.

Keeping the road system in fair to good condition is the most efficient and cost-effective method, said Deepak Gupta, the engineering manager for the Clare County Road Commission.

“What you don’t want to do is fix the worst first,” Gupta said.

The quality of roads is rated as good, fair or poor.

Good roads have relatively new pavement and require little maintenance, Gutowski said.

Improving roads in fair condition can cost between $20,000 and $115,000 per mile, and poor roads can cost between $275,000 and $350,000 to bring them back to good condition, Gutowski said.

“We have about 90 miles of primary roads that are in poor condition,” Gutowski said. We would have to spend $25 million on those 90 miles to get those back into good condition.”

Bridge repair battles to keep up with bridge decline

Capital News Service

LANSING — About one in 10 bridges in Michigan is in poor condition, according to the 2018 Michigan Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. But state transportation experts say there are not enough funds to keep up with needed repairs.

The overall grade for bridges in Michigan is C-minus, and about 1,234 out of the state’s 11,156 bridges are structurally deficient, according to the report.

The Department of Transportation (MDOT) upgraded 22 poor bridges last year and local road agencies upgraded 56, said Jeff Cranson, the department’s director of the office of communications.

The state spends between $100 million and $150 million a year on average to repair bridges, Cranson said.

But the state’s investment in maintaining its bridges’ structures hasn’t been enough for many years, said Ronald Brenke, the executive director of the Michigan Society of Professional Engineers.

“As you drive down the freeway, if you look carefully you’d see temporary support under a lot of our bridges,” Brenke said. “It’s obviously not a most efficient way to maintain a deficient bridge, but because we don’t have enough funding, we have to put in temporary measures to keep them open.”

Bridge safety concerns have returned to the public eye after a new pedestrian bridge at Florida International University collapsed on March 15, killing six people.

But Michigan uses different processes for its bridge construction, meaning a similar situation is not likely in this state, experts said.

The Florida bridge was built by “accelerated bridge construction,” also known as ABC system, a technology that reduces onsite construction time and minimizes mobility impacts, said Osama Abudayyeh, a professor and chair of the Civil and Construction Engineering Department at Western Michigan University.

But MDOT Director Kirk Steudle said 95 percent of bridges in Michigan aren’t complex structures like the bridge in Florida.

“I don’t think that situation is necessarily happening in Michigan,” Abudayyeh said. “I think Michigan’s technique and procedure are very sound.”

The condition of bridges is rated on a nine-point National Bridge Inventory scale. A structurally deficient bridge is rated in “poor” condition (0 to 4 on that scale) of the deck, superstructure and substructure, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

“Bridges are inspected at a minimum of every 24 months,” said Matt Chynoweth, the director of MDOT’s Bureau of Bridges and Structures.

“We use the inspection data to determine bridges needing maintenance, rehabilitation and replacement,” Chynoweth said. “Ideally, we’d like to be performing maintenance on a bridge every eight to 10 years, based on the bridges’ condition.”

In terms of structurally deficient bridges, Chynoweth said that even though a bridge is identified in poor condition, “this does not imply a lack of safety of the bridge. Rather it is a condition that is managed by additional inspections or physical mitigation such as rehabilitation or replacement.”

“The term of ‘structurally deficient’ was a formula used by the Federal Highway Administration to help determine eligibility for federal bridge funding,” he said.

In 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a $1.2 billion road funding package focused on improving the condition of the state’s roads and bridges. The five-year plan is scheduled to begin in 2019, according to the Snyder’s office.

But the anticipated funds will not be enough to catch up with Michigan’s infrastructure problems.

“Even if we have more money expected to come in, we would not see a huge improvement,” Brenke said. “A lot of bridges are maybe in fair condition right now that are going to slip into a poor condition in the same period of time.”

Local governments are also wrestling with insufficient funds in trying to keep bridges safe.

A bridge reconstruction project is underway in Mecosta County’s Fork Township on 20th Avenue just north of 19 Mile road over the Chippewa River, said Jon Firman, the engineering technician at the Mecosta County Road Commission. But the county is still seeking more money for additional projects.

“Michigan’s bridges are struggling,” Firman said.

A warmer, wetter Michigan might be making potholes worse

Capital News Service

LANSING – This spring’s “breakup” of Michigan roads has been the worst Kirk Steudle has seen in his 31 years with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“The winter we just had was one of the most brutal that we’ve had” for weather that causes crumbling pavement and potholes, said Steudle, the department’s director.

He has seen colder winters, ones with more snow. But when the weather stays cold, it isn’t as bad on the roads as this one was.

“There was a week when it wasn’t above 10 degrees, then the next week it was 60,” Steudle said. “Then we got a rainstorm, we had 4 inches of rain. Then everything froze again. And everything warmed up again. And when all of those happen at the same time, that’s what causes pavements to break up.

“Water is the enemy,” Steudle said. “That is number one.”

Though underfunded repair efforts are the main reason Michigan’s roads continue to deteriorate, Steudle said, higher precipitation levels and more extreme weather might be contributing.

Arguably the most significant climatological trend both seasonally and annually is an increase in precipitation, said State Climatologist Jeffrey Andresen, an MSU geography professor.

Last year set a record for the wettest year in Michigan, going back to 1895, Andresen said, with 10 to 15 percent more annual precipitation than just 60 years ago.

The increase results from more “wet” days and more extreme weather events, both of which are increasing with time, Andresen said.

“We have overwhelming evidence that is happening, and it is consistent and widespread across the state and the region,” Andresen said.

Although MDOT has no official position on whether climate change is causing more unfavorable weather for roads, its officials know there have been more extreme weather events, and they must consider that shift in their infrastructure planning, MDOT Director of Communications Jeff Cranson said.

“We have not performed a statistical analysis, but one is not necessary to be aware that the numbers, especially for flooding in local areas, show that multiple events beyond the 100-year storm event have happened in the last 10-20 years,” Cranson said. “The freeze-thaw cycles at least appear to be more acute due to the increasing number of poor pavements that must survive the forces created by fluctuating temperatures.”

MDOT maintenance engineers have met with a Michigan State University climatologist twice over the past four years and have concluded that the trend is for Michigan weather events to be more extreme overall, Cranson said.

“Two of the past three winters have been somewhat unusual in that we have had more than the average amount of warmer days, especially during the second half of our winters,” Cranson said. “That creates ideal conditions for pavement deterioration, known colloquially as potholes.”

Andresen said there’s a clear long-term trend toward milder winters in Michigan and the Great Lakes region that’s been unmistakable for the last three to four decades.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have cold winters, such as in 2013, said Andresen. However, Michigan is getting warmer, and a significant chunk of that warming occurs during the cold season.

Andresen said the number of freeze-thaw cycles has actually been down overall in the last decade or so, though he is not convinced the data for the Lansing area are accurate and he’d like to see other locations tested.

“I would’ve expected the opposite, to be honest,” Andresen said.

Andresen said the discrepancy might be because of the way weather scientists define freeze-thaw cycles: days when the high temperature is above freezing and the minimum temperature is below.

Many factors go into measuring freeze-thaw cycles accurately, said Samantha Basile, a climate and space sciences and engineering Ph.D student at the University of Michigan. Basile’s basic definition of a freeze-thaw point is when the daily temperature experiences a low of 31 degrees or less and a high of 33 degrees or more.

However, discrepancies between roads can make this harder to accurately measure. Unsalted roads will freeze at a lower point of 28 degrees and thaw at 34, Basile said. Salted roads do not freeze until a low of 26 degrees.

If freeze-thaw cycles are trending downward despite Andresen’s expectations, several factors could help explain why, Basile said.

Michigan’s “freeze-free” period could be increasing, meaning there’s more days where the weather does not go below 32 degrees at all. Multiple shifts between freezing and thawing temperatures within a day could also go unrecorded if only daily minimum and maximum temperatures are being used, she said.

Though the extreme weather trends could be coincidental, they are consistent with many climate change projections for the near and longer-term future in Michigan, Andresen said.

The connection between climate change projections and Michigan’s unfavorable road weather is “certainly possible, and I think it’s important to note that those two are in agreement,” Andresen said.

Some highway maintenance done by private firms

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.

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.”