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Dropping pennies into potholes

Massive pothole in the middle of a two-lane road.
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Governor Rick Snyder was all relentlessly positive smiles yesterday when he signed a bill adding $175 million dollars to this year’s state’s road repair budget.

“There are roads that actually will get fixed because of this investment. You are going to see a lot of barrels in every corner of Michigan because of this,” the governor added.

Jack Lessenberry

However, State Senator Jim Ananich of Flint, the senate minority leader, wasn’t nearly so upbeat, calling it a “Band-Aid for a crisis.” He added, “anyone who has driven on our roads knows that $5,000 for Wolverine or $17,000 for Clio is more like an insult than a solution.”

Ananich added, “Sending a few thousand extra bucks to a city riddled with potholes will not even begin to cover what’s really needed to get our roads in safe, drivable condition.’

Not much agreement there. You might expect that. The governor is a Republican. The state senator is a Democrat, and this, after all, is an election year.

But who is right?

Well, to me, the answer seemed obvious when I heard the governor say we would “see a lot of barrels in every corner of Michigan.” Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller earlier called this money “a drop in the pothole,” meaning that it isn’t nearly enough to address the needs of our crumbling roads.

Miller, who has also been a member of Congress and Michigan’s Secretary of State, knows what she is talking about. The roads in Macomb seem especially bad. I had to drive Mound Road towards Macomb Community College twice recently, and I fantasized that I was piloting a B-24 bomber taking heavy flak on a bombing run in World War II.

Spreading this money across Michigan’s 83 counties sounded to me like visiting a famine zone where millions were starving and giving each victim a few bread crumbs.

But I am not an expert, and I turned to Michigan’s longtime and most trusted source for policy analysis: the nonpartisan Citizens’ Research Council of Michigan.

Craig Theil, the CRC’s research director, confirmed my worst fears, and shared with me a report he had recently written. The bottom line, he said, is “the antiquated and inefficient formula used for sharing road funds with state and local road agencies guarantees that much of this funding will not go to those roads experiencing the most traffic or those in the worst condition.”

That’s because we allocate money for road repairs according to a formula set out by Public Act 51, which was passed in 1951, in a world entirely different from our own. Theil told me “The chief problem is that the formulas do not reflect the relative needs of different areas across the state.” Nor is the money split up based on which roads are most heavily used or which are in the worst shape. Instead, a two-lane road is funded the same as a six lane road.

What’s needed, in other words, is not just more money, but a rational road funding formula. Senator Ananich is right to criticize what’s happening, but we’d be better served if he worked with the CRC to draft a bill that would establish a rational basis for not only raising but distributing money to fix our roads. That would at least give us a road map to get somewhere.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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