LANSING — The path to Lansing is not an easy one. Potholes surround the sides of many roads and cracks have begun to widen in more than one place. The city itself is little better. While the roads around the Capitol building have been kept in good shape, it only takes a short walk to see the state of disrepair return.
Last winter’s polar vortex saw the city of Lansing suffer freezing temperatures and power failures for several weeks straight. Mayor Virg Bernero issued a snow emergency that prohibited non-essential travel and shut down non-essential government offices. And, in the wake of last winter, the terrible conditions left behind a more permanent mark on the road system of Lansing.
A conditions summary from the city of Lansing shows the critical conditions. Nearly 70 percent of Lansing’s roads need either capital preventive maintenance or structural improvement.
Lansing citizens are well aware of the state of their roads.
“The potholes are ridiculous,” said Gail Ericks, who moved to Lansing 15 years ago. “Everything underneath my car, I swear, is damaged.”
“We’re in a situation where we have some of the worst roads in the country and part of that is that we’re sitting in a climate that has a lot of frost-free cycles. We’re also sitting in an area geographically that has a lot of clay underneath the ground,” said president of Superior Asphalt Jeff Kresnak. “We have a lot of swamps in Michigan versus a lot of other states..so when you look geographically at where we sit as a state with all the rivers and streams and farmland it contributes to us having a lot of heavy soils underneath the roads, which creates problems with the roads buckling.”
Superior Asphalt is headed in Grand Rapids. Its subsidiary, Lansing Asphalt, was opened two years ago.
“What separates us is that we have an asphalt manufacturing facility. There are very few asphalt manufacturing facilities,” said Kresnak, who owns Lansing Asphalt. “We are the only asphalt manufacturing facility that is a Michigan headquartered business. When you spend money with us at Lansing Asphalt, the money stays here in Michigan. It doesn’t get shipped overseas.”
For the state of Michigan, and especially for the city of Lansing, pavement contractors help keep the multiple roads in good condition.
The city of Lansing has a large street system. With 107 miles of major streets, about 303 miles of local streets and 989 lane miles, the street division of Lansing’s Public Services Department has a lot to maintain. The department manages this by analyzing different parts of the road system at a time.
Sections of road are given a Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating (PASER) that ranges from one to ten, with one representing a high need for construction and ten representing a nearly perfect road.
Based on the number assigned, the level of reconstruction for the roads can be determined. This system has been put into place in an effort to conserve the resources available for road construction.
The standards for this rating have been set by the Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council, who require cities to submit their PASER rating annually. The city of Lansing has recently completed a three year assessment of their roads after analyzing a third of the roads per year.
A map of the city of Lansing shows the most recent PASER ratings of the road systems. While there are a handful of roads that rank as an eight or nine, most of the roads have been ranked as a two or three, numbers that should call for immediate action.
However, according to Lansing’s Public Services Department, only 5.93 miles were improved in the year of 2013. These miles included 2.63 miles of major streets and 3.30 miles of local roads. This added 14 lane miles to Lansing’s streets.
According to Kresnak, it is the cities that determine how their roads will be constructed.
“They have their own engineer on staff and they make the determination of what is the best solution for their roads and they dictate that to us,” said Kresnak. “A lot of times you’re seeing them doing what we call ‘mill and fills’, where you see a mill machine take off an inch and a half of existing asphalt and replacing that area with an inch and a half of new versus tearing it all out to the subbase which costs more money.”
But the quick solution may not be the best solution.
“When you mill off two inches and put back two inches it might give that road hypothetically ten years of life versus if they had done the road right from the beginning it could have given in 20 or 30 years of life,” said Kresnak.
With a winter already on the way that is promised to be worse than last year’s, the question must be asked – what is being done about Lansing’s roads?
The issue with funds
State and local political leaders have had a hard time agreeing on how to pay for better roads. Newly re-elected Gov. Rick Snyder has said in several interviews that raising this money will be his first priority this term. He hopes to create a plan that will permanently fix the issue of money for the state’s roads.
During Snyder’s first term, he unsuccessfully attempted to raise money for state roads by further taxing vehicle registration and fuel. His proposal was largely opposed by lawmakers who were concerned about the public’s reaction to higher taxes. However, with seven legislative days left in 2014, this is still Snyder’s plan.
If legislators take action and change Michigan’s gas tax, it would eliminate the tax per gallon currently in place and instead charge a wholesale tax. This tax would increase by 2 percent for three years in an effort to raise $1.2 billion for Michigan’s roads. It would be the first tax increase on gas in Michigan since 1997.
The state of Michigan has received federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in the amount of $847.2 million, but this money was a one-time bailout. In addition, even if Snyder manages to raise $1.2 billion from increased taxes, it will take an average of $2.5 billion per year to maintain Michigan’s roads.
“The price of asphalt is significantly driven by the price of liquid asphalt. That represents 80 percent of our cost,” Kresnak said.
The city of Lansing does receive some level of funding from the state. Each year, the state government distributes $1.4 billion to local agencies for road repair and construction. This money is combined with city funds to maintain Lansing’s roads.
“It all comes down to funding and where the tax dollars are going to come from,” Kresnak said. “I think until we get the funding, a lot of the different municipalities in the state will be struggling to keep the roads in shape to where we’re not having so much vehicle damage.”
Lansing looks to the future
There are currently two major road projects planned in Lansing as well as a small cluster of local road projects. Three main road projects have been recently completed. This construction barely represents a fraction of the roads that have been labeled “poor” or “failed”. The state they are in will determine the amount of materials needed for their reconstruction.
“In certain cases we have to completely take the asphalt out and take out the subbase. For a proper subbase you need sand underneath the asphalt, and on top of the sand you need gravel and then the asphalt,” Kresnak said. “That’s the ideal situation for the subbase. And asphalt is only as good as what it’s sitting on. So without having a proper subbase, your asphalt will only be as good as your subbase.”
Sue Horton, a retired social worker, grew up in Lansing and since moving away continues to visit family often. According to her, many of Michigan’s roads are poor.
“Anywhere they’re bad. In Lansing they’re bad,” said the 62-year-old. “The only place that I don’t notice them being very bad is in Grand Rapids.”
Horton knows that the money for roads has to come from somewhere.
“I suppose if people are using the roads, they need to pay for them. It’s not fair for taxes like property taxes to increase if people don’t drive,” Horton said. “I know a lot of senior citizens that pay their taxes but they don’t buy gas and they aren’t on the road. So I guess that would be fair.”
“I don’t know what they can do besides keep raising our taxes. I’m a homeowner, so it seems a bit ridiculous,” said Ericks, who is currently renovating a house. “I don’t know where else they’d get their money. I don’t know what kinds of funds they have.”
Kresnak thinks it’s “tough for us to want to swallow more taxes.”
“What we need to do is figure out a way to get revenue to put money into the roads,” Kresnak said. “Investing into the roads is investing into our future.”