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Michigan roads are bad. That doesn't mean they're going to get fixed

Why are Michigan roads so bad? Because we don’t put enough money into fixing them.

Why is that? Because lawmakers don’t fear underfunding the state’s roads will cost them on Election Day.

Despite lawmakers putting hundreds of millions of dollars into Michigan roads, it hasn’t been enough to keep up with all the work that needs to be done.

There’s plenty of evidence that drivers want good roads. People have been posting pictures on social media of massive craters and the damage they’ve caused their cars and trucks.

“Clearly, it’s an issue that politicians ought to contend with,” Bernie Porn of the polling firm EPIC-MRA told It’s Just Politics.

He says a survey conducted before this newest round of damage suggests roads and infrastructure is ripe to become an election issue.

“We have seen multiple statewide surveys where infrastructure is the top issue that is of concern to voters.”

Now, we should point out this EPIC-MRA survey, released in January, was commissioned by the organization that represents construction companies that get road work contracts. But the results are intriguing because usually it’s the economy or education that top the list of issues voters care about.

The fact that infrastructure now tops the list suggests voters might be ready to hold the political class accountable.

Frustration, however, with road conditions in Michigan is nothing new.

Geography makes maintaining and fixing roads in Michigan a unique challenge. Our winters are full of frequent freeze and thaw cycles. This month, the situation was worsened by heavy rains and flooding that washed out roads.

Maintenance and repairs are difficult and expensive. And it’s hard for voters to relate to the money that’s being spent.

We hear about hundreds of millions of dollars going into the roads and we see orange barrels on highways. But drivers aren’t feeling it.

This is where politics comes into play. How bad do the roads have to get before lawmakers decide to do something that includes some kind of tax increase?

Is there a point where voters basically say, ‘the roads are so bad that we demand that you tax us more’? Lawmakers are betting that’s not the case.

Also, voters aren’t road experts. And when voters don’t completely understand an issue, it’s less likely to drive their ballot choices.

So, is there a candidate out there who can figure out how to frame the problem and come up with a possible solution that will capture voters’ attention?

A lot can happen in the coming months.

People are frustrated right now with road conditions.  

But will the floods of February create a tide that will last until November’s election?


Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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