Talking Michigan Transportation

The perils of decades of under investing in roads

March 24, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 97
Talking Michigan Transportation
The perils of decades of under investing in roads
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a focus on the challenge road agencies face trying to make repairs at a faster pace than the pavement deteriorates.

First, Chad Livengood, senior editor at Crain’s Detroit Business with a long track record reporting on transportation policy and funding in Michigan, talks about his takeaways from an in-depth story (subscription) posted this week that explores the real needs for roads and bridges owned by the state’s 616 road agencies.

Later, Craig Newell, administrator of MDOT’s statewide planning division, talks about his division’s work in monitoring pavement condition and helping with long-term decisions about investments and projects.

Gov. Whitmer’s Rebuilding Michigan plan investing an additional $3.5 billion into state trunklines (M, US, and I-routes) is aimed at staving off deterioration and keeping more pavement in the good category.

Livengood cites data from the Transportation Asset Management Council that shows how Michigan’s 2015 road funding legislation did not solve the decades-long problem of underinvestment in transportation infrastructure.

Livengood also recalls previous reporting that detailed the growth of outer ring suburbs and the demands they create for more publicly financed infrastructure. He asks again, "Can we afford it as we struggle to maintain what we have?" He also recalls this previous commentary: Want to fix roads? Start with the damn term limits.

Following Livengood, MDOT’s Newell explains the importance of closely monitoring pavement and applying sound asset management principles to determine what kind of fix is best, whether it’s preventive maintenance, resurfacing or completely rebuilding a road.

Newell also explains how MDOT became a national leader in asset management in 1997 and is still pioneering innovative efforts today. 


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: This week we'll be talking again about the roads in Michigan, and the difficulty of maintaining what we have with the funding that we have, and it's just not enough. We've made some improvements in the state trunk lines; those are the M- routes, the I- routes, and the US- routes, the most heavily traveled roads in the state thanks to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s ambitious rebuilding Michigan plan. But we're still going to need a broader solution from policymakers as the governor pointed out last week when she was in Detroit for the pancakes and politics breakfast, that we still need a long-term sustainable solution. Chad Livengood, who has done some extensive reporting on this, has another story this week, taking a look at payment and what the lack of investment has meant to our state's literal foundation. We'll be talking with him first. His lead in the story posted today said simply, if there's one issue that bedevils Michigan policymakers the most, it's those damn roads. For much of this century, lawmakers and three governors from both parties have been debating how to pay for fixing Michigan’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure following decades of stagnant investment and declining buying power of per gallon taxes on fuel. That says it well. After Chad, I'll be speaking with Craig Newell, who is administrator of the statewide planning division at MDOT and knows a lot about pavement projections, and asset management, and how MDOT planners track where the investment is needed, and how long pavements can last, and how to stretch the dollars as much as possible. But, to begin this week's conversation, I’m with Chad Livengood, who's a senior editor at Crain’s Business Detroit, and probably as media goes—and gosh, I certainly don't want to give anybody else short shrift here, but one of the foremost experts on transportation policy just because he's delved into it so deeply and been writing about it so long, which sounds odd because he's really not that old. Chad has a story that posted this week, Thursday, March 24th, looking at pavement conditions, and what's been going on in Michigan. And despite some incremental increases in revenue, we're really not seeing a dent payment overall, especially on the local system, going the wrong way. So Chad, thanks for taking time to talk about your reporting, and give me, I guess, high level what you came away from this with. 

Chad Livengood: Well Jeff, I’m 39 years old, I turn 40 in November, and I’ve spent my entire 30s writing about crummy roads in Michigan. And I, at this point, I project I will continue to do that in my 40s, just based on where we're going. And so yeah, back in 2015, I was at the Detroit news in the Lansing bureau. Maybe even back up to 2014, to that infamous lame duck session after then Governor Rick Snyder was re-elected. He had been already trying for a couple years to get road funding or a gas tax increase on the agenda in the legislature. And, you know, anybody who just understands politics would know a freshly re-elected governor with a lame duck legislature…there's no better time to get what you want than now. And—

 Cranson: After you've given them a couple things they wanted. 

Livengood: Yes, absolutely, I mean, he had to walk the plank two years prior and give them right to work with, you know, ten thousand angry union guys outside the capitol. So yeah, I mean, at the time I thought we're increasing gas taxes, and of course that's not what happened. And we all remember that press conference in the governor's capital office when they rolled out what I think is probably the worst political diagram policy proposal I’ve ever seen. It was this road, I don't even know, it was a road to the future looking thing where it showed how the proposal one sales tax increase was going to produce two billion dollars more for roads every year, backfill the repeal of sales tax on gasoline, convert the gas tax to a percentage base wholesale tax, I mean, just do all kinds of things. I think there was a tax on EV’s in there somewhere, I mean, it was the most convoluted thing ever. And we found out that the voters understood that quite quickly when 80 percent of them said no to that proposal in May of 2015. So, then we got, you know, the year dragged on, and of course, that was the year of the infamous Courser-Gamrat scandal, so the house representatives got consumed for a couple months on a sex scandal while the governor was trying to keep focused on the roads. Finally we get— 

Cranson: Who wrote that story? 

Livengood: I did, but yeah, so October of— 

Cranson: Oh, so it's your fault that they got distracted. 

Livengood: I can't confirm or deny that…but by October of 2015, there was clearly some people that were exhausted by this issue—namely, Richard Dale Snyder. And so they did a deal, and we got this current plan that we are now finally seeing the full fruits of, and that was the 1.2-billion-dollar plan. Half of it was a tax increase with a 7-cent gas tax increase, diesel parity, first diesel tax increase since 1984. And then the 20 percent increase in the vehicle registration fee. But as we, as you and I both know, that did not actually materialize for many years later, the whole thing, because they set the tax increase to happen January 1st, 2017, after the 2016 election, and the 600 million dollars from general fund was phased in over five fiscal years. It finally got fully funded last year, and then the inflationary increase to the gas tax got added and just kicked in this year, when gas went up less than one penny per gallon. So, I went back and kind of wanted to look at, what do we get for this? And based on the ratings that we know right now from MDOT and other agencies, in 2015, 39 percent of the pavement was in poor condition, 45 was in fair, and 18 percent was considered good. This year, 40 percent is considered in poor condition, 35 percent in fair condition, and 25 percent in good shape. So we do have more pavement in good shape, but we have basically the same amount of pavement in poor shape. And, you know, that's kind of a reflection of how fast the roads are deteriorating, and my takeaway from all of it is the roads really aren't much better off than they were seven years ago. 

Cranson: A couple things there; one, people who were honest at the time in 2015, including, I think, then Senate majority leader Arlan Meekhof, said this is a good start. Nobody was saying that too loudly—but, I mean, I was—that it wasn't going to do what really needed to be done, and especially the lack of sustainability with any solution that involves general fund. I mean, roads have traditionally in our country been funded by user fees, and there's a good reason that that's a model that works. And so, planning on general fund is a bad idea to begin with. The two good things you mentioned that did come out of that package were diesel parity and the inflation adjustment. But as soon as we did that, because we're always compared to Ohio, and people say, gosh, Ohio has better roads, well, Ohio taxes diesel at 47 cents. Well we're at 27, and they upped their regular fuel gas tax to 38. So you do get what you pay for in this thing when it comes to roads. So, talk about your reporting, and how you delved into these pavement projections. And you've studied the transportation asset management council, and the very robust research and work they do to really keep track of pavements at all levels: the city roads, the county roads, and the state routes. Which, the state routes have shown some incremental improvement because of Governor Whitmer’s upped investment. But that will of course level off when the bonding stops. But talk about your broader takeaways on just the pavement. 

Livengood: Yeah, I dived into the local roads because, you know, no offense to MDOT, most of the state highways are pretty good shape and are getting in much better shape than they were in part because of the governor's bonding program, because that has injected three and a half billion over a three or four year period. And that's certainly starting to show, but anyone who drives a local road knows that's where the proverbial rubber meets the broken road. And particularly in Southeast Michigan, and this is where I have long thought there is a massive disconnect in the legislature. And that is playing in part because the people who chair the appropriations committee, the transportation appropriations committee, the people who are the speaker of the house, the Senate majority leader, they almost all have been from outside of Southeast Michigan. I mean, the closest we've had to a legislative leader to Detroit or Wayne County is Randy Richardville, and he's been gone for eight years now from the legislature, and so— 

Cranson: And he was almost, he was instrumental in almost getting a real plan over the finish line in 2014. 

Livengood: Yeah, he and someone named Gretchen Whitmer— 

Cranson: Yeah, that’s right. 

Livengood: —were very much involved in trying to get that and make that happen. They were stopped by the then speaker of the house, Jase Bolger, who insisted that he was not going to do a deal without getting the sales tax off of gasoline. Which, if you talk to anybody, any voter on the street, and you tell them that that the six percent sales tax doesn't go to roads, they get red in the face. I mean, it really bothers people. But there's this thing called the education lobby, and they're pretty powerful at Lansing. When you start talking about taking sales tax away from gasoline, it's one billion dollars a year, if not more, in road funding. Now, we're recording this on Thursday, the 24th of March. Today, Senate minority leader Jim Ananich introduced a bill to pause that sales tax on gasoline for the remainder of the year as a different tax relief mechanism. And he's got an interesting take on this, that the legislature budgets for school aid fund to get that billion dollars based on about 2.85 a gallon gas. Ananich argues that the math works out that we've already earned all that sales tax as a state for this fiscal year for the first six months because gas has been over three dollars a gallon basically since November. 

Cranson: And it's safe to call that a windfall. 

Livengood: Yes, and so you could make an argument that the schools have already gotten their share, so it won't be defunding schools, which is obviously something nobody wants to take a vote on in an election year and get portrayed as. But they wanna make sure that they're held harmless, and Ananich said yeah, there's some money that goes to cities constitutional revenue sharing, but there's a couple billion dollars of surplus laying around in Lansing right now. And that could be made up, but, anyways, to get back to the sort of larger issue here, the local roads have always, to me, always been where the legislature has not spent enough time focusing on solving. And that's, in part, the way the act 51 works, and who gets money. I’ve written about what, I think, is sort of the cancer of some of this in the suburbs of Detroit, and other suburbs of their suburban areas around the state; it's charter townships. They can just approve development and leave their county the bill for fixing the roads. A few years ago, I was up going to a friend's birthday party on 23 mile in Macomb township, and there was a project there to widen a one mile section of 23 mile in order to put in turn lanes and accommodate density that was going into old farm fields. They were building these condos on 23 mile road, which, you know, anybody knows Macomb County, that's pretty far away from the interstate, and from the rest of job centers, and all that and such. So I looked up what were they spending on this, and it was 10 million dollars. In the time, Macomb County itself had 800 lane miles of road in poor condition, and they were replacing about 75 a year. So, you know, it's going to take like 12 years to fix all the existing bad roads in Macomb County, but somehow they'd found money for essentially more sprawl. And I mean, I just have said since then, I wrote it in a piece in Crain’s, and I’ve said this in multiple speeches about this subject in front of rotary clubs and trade associations. We have simply built a state we cannot afford to maintain with the current revenue that we have. There's just no disputing that. And so, catching up is just impossible at this rate. And this data from the County Road Association really kind of tells the story. Last year, county agencies repaved or rebuilt or repaired in some way 5,700 miles of roads. The engineers out there say that they need to be doing 15 percent of all county-owned roads. That would mean they need to get 13,500 miles of road a year. There's a 7,800 mile gap in roads that need to be fixed. 

Cranson: Yeah, and the point you make is a really good one. It's almost like when you buy a condo, and somebody didn't disclose that there's also association fees. We need to say, look, every time you build a development, this is what's going to go with it, and here are the liabilities and the costs. And they're going to be spread around to all of us, whether you wanted that housing development out in the middle of nowhere or not. 

Livengood: Yeah, absolutely, and you know, at the time like three years ago, Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey was getting kind of a lot of grief because he came out and said that some roads probably just need to go back to gravel. And there was some snickering about that, particularly down like at the Oakland County Road Commission because Oakland County has more total miles of gravel roads than any county in the state. Which is like mind-boggling, but if you go out and rule Oakland County, there's subdivision after a subdivision on gravel roads. And that same week, I happened to be going to one of Bob Seger’s final concerts at Pine Knob. And I got caught stuck in like the back roads behind Pine Knob, which are completely gravel, they're great gravel roads, they're really well maintained. And I should also say, my parents built a lake house out in rural Livingston County on a gravel road, and the Livingston County Road Commission is amazing for the work they put in to grading that road and keeping it maintained. That's a huge part of road maintenance, so it was at the time when Shirkey suggested that that there was a lot of people—in particular in the county road industry—that were kind of laughing because gravel roads aren't free either. And they have to be paved, I mean, they have to be plowed and get new treated and— 

Cranson: There's still maintenance work to be done for sure.

 Livengood: Yeah. 

Cranson: This is good, we could talk about this forever. I think you gave me enough to springboard onto your story. and we're gonna talk about this more. I think the last time you were on the podcast back in 2019, you talked about the advice that veteran Detroit News journalist Gary Heinlein gave you, and I think that axiom still holds. 

Livengood: Yeah, I mean, Gary told me on my first day on the job at the Detroit News, we’ll never write enough about roads, and he's completely right. I think of takeaway policy makers, is they need to go back and look at what was done, and this is an important point here, Jeff, real quickly is; there's about a dozen senators who were in the house in 2015. That's it. There's like 130 some members of the legislature who had no role in the policy that is prescribed the amount of funding that we have today for roads in Michigan.  

Cranson: So, next time we take up term limits. 

Livengood: Well, I wrote a piece a couple years ago, “you want to fix the damn roads, fix the damn term limits first”. But yeah, and the other thing is like data, this data don't lie, I mean, 20 most populous counties, and seven years ago 13 and a half percent of them had good condition roads. And in those 20 most populous counties—and now it's just over 17 percent—I mean, we haven't really made a whole lot of progress on this front. And that's one case for changing term limits, at least, is we need legislators who actually are keeping their eye on this ball and reevaluating it intellectually, with intellectual honesty, and not from a partisan standpoint or from a short term, this is not my problem. People need to kind of take an eye on this because as time goes on, we know there's going to be a cliff here when all this federal aid runs out and the bond money runs out, and then we're going to start being back in the same position that we were seven/ten years ago. 

Cranson: Amen, and that's a great segue for my next guest, Craig Newell, who is a policy pavement expert at MDOT, an administrator in that area, and can talk about how they track payment and make projections on conditions. So Chad, thank you as always, I really appreciate it, and I appreciate your thorough reporting and all that you've done to shine a light on this issue.

 Livengood: Thanks for having me, Jeff. 

Cranson: Please stay tuned, we'll be back with more Talking Michigan Transportation right after this. 

Narrator: [car honking] Know before you go. Head on over to Midrive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map head over to 

Cranson: Okay, again, we're back this time with Craig Newell, who is the administrator of the statewide planning division at MDOT, first time visitor to the podcast. Before we talk a little bit about your units work, very good work, very helpful work tracking pavement and the science that you use to make projections, just talk a little bit about your background, Craig, and how you came to be in the role you're in. 

Craig Newell: Sure, thanks, Jeff, for having me. Yeah, I’ve been with the department for 30 years now, hard to believe, and actually been in the bureau of transportation planning my entire career. So right out of school, came to the department as, actually, as an intern, and have had the opportunity to work my way up within the bureau of transportation planning over my 30-year career. 

Cranson: So, what else have you done? It sounds like for a long time, I know you had a brief stint in policy, but, for a long time you've been focused on pavement. 

Newell: Yeah, so in my division now, and where I pretty much have come up through the department, we focus on asset management and development of the highway program. So, we work closely with the engineers in project selection and developing the five-year plan list of projects that gets put out to the public every year. So, we do everything from revenue forecasting to pavement condition forecasting to reviewing the projects that get selected with the region engineers and publishing them in the five-year plan and monitoring them to make sure they get delivered. 

Cranson: So, you're not over asset management, but you work closely with the folks that do asset management. And that's related to what you do and your unit does in terms of tracking pavement and pavement condition. You know, the general public has no idea what a science there is involved in that, and how important it is to really know the true condition and where the pavement's going so that you can use asset management principles to stay on top of it. And, you know, make the money go as far as it can. I mean, that's one of the reasons Michigan and MDOT has been a leader in asset management nationally is out of necessity. Because we've underfunded for so long, we've got to do things creative things to make the money go farther. Talk about how that works. 

Newell: Yeah, absolutely, you know, Michigan was one of the first states, I think, in the country to get involved in asset management. We've been doing it since 1997. We've developed our own tools and our own measures, and, you know, have a very mature asset management process at this point after doing it for so long. So really, there's one main pavement condition measure—performance measure, if you will, that the department uses, and that's remaining service life; what we call RSL. That is more of a pavement health measure, if you will; it kind of measures the structural integrity of our pavements rather than just looking at it from what sometimes is called a windshield survey. So it is exactly what it sounds like—how much life is left in a particular pavement section. How many years of life until that pavement is no longer cost efficient to just do a preventive maintenance fix that actually would have to be a more like a reconstruction, a more heavy type, more cost expensive fix. So, we use remaining service life as our main measure, and we have a tool that utilizes that measure called the road quality forecasting system. That was developed, again, in-house, but it is the main tool that we use to identify. Basically that tool can do two things, Jeff, it can, given a certain investment amount, it can forecast what pavement condition will be in a certain year, or secondly, given an investment required to achieve a certain payment condition. So, for example, the State Transportation Commission identified a pavement condition goal way back in the 90s, again, that basically 90 percent of our pavements, our state trunk line pavements, would be in good or fair condition. And this tool will tell us how much additional funding we need each year to achieve that goal. And that's a big number, right Jeff? 

Cranson: It's a huge number. 

Newell: We've brought that number of about an additional 1.9 billion dollars annually over the next 10 years, just for MDOT's pavements to achieve that goal. 

Cranson: Which are, you know, they carry more than 50 percent of the state's traffic, but in terms of overall lane miles, it's a fraction of the states, right? 

Newell: Exactly, yeah, there's a lot of other roads out there that the department doesn't oversee that have a lot of needs as well, for sure. 

Cranson: So, real quickly while we're on that asset management issue, it seems counterintuitive to some people. And we get asked all the time, why wouldn't you just, you know, fix the worst ones first? 

Newell: Yeah, so the whole asset management approach is, to developing the program, is to do the right fix at the right time. So certainly there's a, you know, if you wait too long, a pavement has a life, right. It kind of has a life cycle to a pavement; it starts out brand new, and then it starts aging, and then at the end of its life it has zero pavement life left. And that's usually typically 20 to 30 years on a brand-new reconstructed pavement. So, the asset management approach tells us what type of fix we should be doing along that pavement's life. At the beginning, we should be doing preventive maintenance, capital preventive maintenance site fixes, while the pavement is still in good and fair condition to keep it that way. Those are not as expensive, not as heavy, tight fixes that are going to keep that pavement and give it a longer pavement life, if you will. And then as that pavement ages, and we've done a number of those preventive maintenance type fixes, you're going to require more of a heavier tight fix, maybe a resurface, a heavy resurface or rehabilitation type fix, which are a little bit more expensive. But they'll also extend the life of that pavement. And then, once you've done that so many times, you're getting down to the point where those types of fixes no longer are cost effective, and you really need to spend the money to reconstruct that entire payment, and those are the more expensive fixes. 

Cranson: And that's what Governor Whitmer has tried to emphasize with the rebuilding Michigan program when she says, you know, we're going to fix them right, we're going to use the right materials. That's not a slap at any road agencies, it's basically saying that you see roads that seem to be worked on frequently, you know, you hear the complaints of people that they were out there just a couple years ago. Well, it's because they were doing the best they could with the money, some kind of preventative maintenance. And the idea is, if we can invest where we need to completely rebuild, that it should last a good long time. That's the idea. 

Newell: Yeah, that's exactly right. And I’ve heard the figure thrown around that it costs seven to ten times the investment if you wait until the road is poor, and you can't do those preventive maintenance site fixes on that road anymore, and you have to do a more expensive reconstruction. So that's exactly right, the asset management approach saves the taxpayers money, essentially, extends the life of those payments. 

Cranson: Well thanks, Craig, for taking time to explain that, and thank you to you and everybody in your area for your responsiveness and all you do to help our efforts and media relations and help the public understand these topics that can be a little bit thick sometimes. I really appreciate it. 

Newell: Thanks, Jeff, thanks for having me. 


Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.