Talking Michigan Transportation

Detroit Free Press reporter Kristi Tanner talks about challenges facing Michigan bridges

October 29, 2020 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 2 Episode 37
Talking Michigan Transportation
Detroit Free Press reporter Kristi Tanner talks about challenges facing Michigan bridges
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s edition of Talking Michigan Transportation, Detroit Free Press reporter Kristi Tanner talks about her extensive reporting on the condition of bridges in Michigan. 

On Thursday, Oct. 29, Tanner spoke about her findings to a virtual conference of Michigan’s Transportation Asset Management Council (TAMC). 

She explains how, despite some more funding for roads and bridges included in the state Legislature’s 2015 road funding legislation, Michigan’s roads and bridges continue to deteriorate. 

After the legislation was signed, a study from the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission outlined in extensive detail why a wide gap continues to exist between what is being allocated for roads and bridges and what’s needed. 

Tanner also cites Michigan’s ranking - 42nd nationwide for road spending for every 10,000 vehicle miles traveled - and a report highlighting the facts from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. 

Other key links to topics: 

Tanner’s extensive reporting on the topic. 

When local road agency officials work with MDOT to make difficult decisions about closing some bridges. 

How Michigan’s TAMC offers support to all of the state’s more than 600 road agencies to track bridge conditions and help officials make data-based decisions about how to allocate resources and most effectively maintain the state’s bridges. 


Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT Communications Director Jeff Cranson.

Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome again to the podcast. Today I’ll be talking with Kristi Tanner of the Detroit Free Press about her extensive reporting on Michigan bridges, the conditions, the inspections, and how decades of under investment have forced several local agencies to restrict loads or even close some bridges. We're talking about it now because Kristi spoke to the Transportation Asset Management Council about her findings this week. So, thank you for your time, Kristi.

Kristi Tanner: Hey, Jeff.

Jeff Cranson: So, like I said, you've done probably the most extensive reporting perhaps ever on Michigan bridge conditions and the processes for monitoring and inspecting. I think back to the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, and there was some reporting in Michigan following that, people trying to find out about inspection processes and whether we had similarly designed bridges, but after that, nobody really took a hard look at this. I know when I was at the Grand Rapids Press, MLive did a pretty extensive infrastructure look in one month in 2010, but it didn't delve into these bridge conditions. So, tell me first, what was the genesis for this project, and what interested you and got you into it?

Kristi Tanner: Well, I have to credit it to a former editor that used to work with the Free Press. Gosh, late end of 2018, there were a series of bridge closings and weight restrictions that happened in and around Metro Detroit on local bridges, and he asked me to take a closer look at it. Also, being the data reporter at the Free Press, these issues with bridges are very number heavy, so, as you know probably, there are a lot of inspections and ratings and numbers and there's mapping and statistics involved, so he thought I'd be a good candidate to look into it, and turned out to be a lot of fun.

Jeff Cranson: So, it did seem like you had a lot of fun. Obviously, we talked, and you talked to our bridge engineers quite a bit along the way. So, I guess I’m wondering what do you think resonated especially with you? You talked about the one story, you said you can blame the weather, more so you should blame the funding, which is tied to state transportation spending. Michigan historically has not put enough into fixing its bridges. In 2015, Michigan ranked 42nd nationwide for road spending for every 10,000 vehicle miles traveled according to the Citizens Research Council, and I should mention that the CRC has done some great research on these things. So, talk about your conclusions and how you arrived at those three key sentences, I guess, that kind of summed up everything.

Kristi Tanner: Well, and as you know, a lot has changed over the last couple years, especially since 2015. Our funding has increased, right, but it remains short of what is needed. I think what really maybe surprised me, because I’m not an expert in bridges or transportation for that matter, I enjoy working with statistics and data and learning about these things, but what the one thing that surprised me is just the gap that still remains despite the increase in dollars that's occurred over the last couple years. I don't know—part of the findings also were that in 2018 the total cost to replace Michigan’s roughly 1,200 bridges that were in poor or worst condition was $3.4 billion dollars, just for those 1,200 bridges alone that are in poor condition, and of that, a majority of that money, $1.9 billion— more than half—would be required for local agencies to address their bridges. So, when it comes to funding, I think the biggest takeaway for me, personally, was the gap between the need and the availability of funds, and then how that gap varied by owner. If you give me one more second, I’ll try to explain, it's very complex, and then I’ll then I’ll stop, but I’m not sure if your listeners know. I didn't know all this at the time, but the main source of funding for local bridges are the state dollars from the Michigan Transportation Fund, and that fund, created by Public Act 51, everyone calls it Act 51, is revenue raised primarily from motor fuel taxes and registration fees. So, just like the state, a majority of local governments spend their money on roads and not on bridges, but that Michigan Transportation Fund really is the source of funding for bridge spending, and the need far outweighs what's available in terms of dollars for local communities to address that gap in funding.

Jeff Cranson: That's very well said. You've got it. I’m not going to ask you to comment on this, but in 2015 when the last funding increase was passed and it was a combination of increase in fuel taxes and registration fees, and a promise to dedicate some income tax money that would otherwise go to the general fund to roads, several people said at the time, you know, this is a good start. This isn't enough, but it's a good start, and I think that a lot of people didn't realize that. They just thought, ‘well, I thought we solved the problem,’ and so it raises the question, and, again, you don't have to weigh in on this, but if you do something and you make a big deal out of it, and you know it's not enough, have you done more harm than good because it makes it more difficult to, you know, go all the way and get the big lift that you need.

Kristi Tanner: I think that what really— and when you dig into these numbers further because that $3.4 billion at the time, that's 2018 number, I’m sure it's larger now, because, you know, our number of bridges and poor conditions continues to increase; therefore, the cost to address them will increase. That number is so large, but if you think about it in terms of maybe a county road commission, you know, counties own, other than the state, counties own a lot of bridges. Wayne County is an outlier and for two reasons. One, it is one of the five counties with the largest number of bridges. They own over 300 such bridges, more than 300 bridges, 231 are required to be inspected because they're longer than 20 feet and they're on public roads. The problem there is that they have a lot of bridges, but they also have one in three bridges are in poor condition. So, according to MDOT data and the analysis we did, it would cost more than $400 million dollars to replace their poor condition bridges alone—just the poor ones—and if you look at the money they get from the MTF, that Michigan Transportation Fund, the last year I looked at it they got $77 million, and of that, $10 million is used in their annual bridge budget. So, there's a clear gap and it's not just in this extreme example in Wayne County. You can go online and read the stories. We've got it for every community. Even though it's a year old, it's still telling about what the gap is between what's needed and what's available with the current conditions.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, and I’ll definitely include a link to the stories in the show notes so that people can get to those.

Kristi Tanner: Jeff, I have a question for you, sorry.

Jeff Cranson: No.

Kristi Tanner: Surprise! And if you think about the readers, hopefully I’ll have time just to follow up this year between now and the new year, just think about the decrease in traffic volumes, right, and transportation revenues, and how that's going to impact our local communities in the up and coming fiscal year. Maybe you can answer that question for me, Jeff.

Jeff Cranson: Well, I can tell you that when Moody's did their analysis of the bond sales for the governor's Rebuilding Michigan plan, they said that while volumes were down, kind of settled at about 20 percent lower now than they would be in a normal year, after being down as much as 60 percent, you know, when the outbreak first surfaced and we were in total kind of stay home mode. But still, that's going to take a toll on transportation revenues, not as severe as originally thought. People are back out there as you've noticed, I’m sure. People are buying cars, which is, I mean, we have to continue registering our cars whether they're new or not, but obviously registering newer vehicles brings in more money, since we do our registration based on value in Michigan, so, yeah, it's concerning. I think you're right, especially the local agencies, I mean, the city’s municipalities are going to be hit especially hard. And that's why this debate continues in D.C. about what should be next in a stimulus plan, and how much of it should go to cities because their revenues are going to be down in every way, and having less money from the MTF coming in is going to also have an effect on what they can do with their roads and bridges, so, yeah, I mean, it's a problem. I mean, we're still driving, people are back on the roads, many driving too fast but that's a whole other issue for another podcast, but, yeah, the answer to your question is that's it's troubling, and it's something our finance folks are keeping a close eye on.

Kristi Tanner: I'll be calling.

Jeff Cranson: Yes, I know, but I ask the questions here, all right?

Kristi Tanner: Okay, sorry, go ahead.

Jeff Cranson: No, listen, I want to know because you brought it up, what you learned along the way. You wouldn't have known, probably, that we had, you know, some 600 road agencies in Michigan, and how you came to understand MDOT’s role, I guess, in monitoring even those bridges that don't belong to the state system, that are part of those local systems.

Kristi Tanner: Well, I learned— really the last story that I worked on that published earlier this year, in January, is really how important, it sounds boring, but really how important inspections are to ensure the safety of our local infrastructure and the safety of us driving around in the public. And that's part of the reason why we spent a lot of time on this project in the beginning because when you get a set of data that tells you there are 13,000 bridges in Michigan, 11,000 are required to be— or more, just over 11,000, have regular inspections because of their characteristics, their length, and their location on public roads. Then the question is, well, what do these numbers mean because there's a rating scale. You know, I’ll be honest, you know, we've done some quick hit stories on just ratings and percent of poor bridges and kind of how things fall, but really the goal of this project was really to understand how states and local governments work together to ensure what this actual rating means. What does it mean to be in poor condition, so probably you don't want me to go too far in the weeds. In the series of stories, I went probably, in my last year, I went way too far in the weeds. Now that I’m reading it again, I’m a little embarrassed that I went so far in the weeds, really deep in the weeds about the relationship between state and local governments and how that inspection cycle is used to make sure that bridges are safe, also, a number of other— there's a quality assurance, quality control review. There's a lot of different, I guess, processes that are that are in place to make sure that things don't slip through the holes, but sometimes they do, and we've written about those too. Sometimes in cases, you know, the data doesn’t reflect reality. Sometimes that inspection doesn't reflect what that bridge looks like, so there is a lot of working together between MDOT and the locals in that way. I’m not sure if that answered your question specifically.

Jeff Cranson: Well, I think for one, it was enlightening probably for readers of your stories and for you to find out that we had so many different road agencies. I mean. in some states the state controls most of the roads. Michigan is probably on the larger side.

Kristi Tanner: Oh, yeah.

Jeff Cranson: In the number of governments and numbers of jurisdictions, and that means a lot more to track and a lot more sort of languages that you have to speak to each other to make sure that they understand, but I think—

Kristi Tanner: Well—

Jeff Cranson: Go ahead.

Kristi Tanner: Well, sorry to interrupt. I think you're right on that, and also, it's the expertise that's needed, right? So, I learned that not every local community has a bridge, right? But for those that do, I’ve learned over and over again that's a very expensive stretch of road, you know. One lane of deck mile and that bridge is very different than a lane a mile on a road as far as the rehabilitation, replacement, maintenance of that, and for these communities that have to actually oversee, and make sure these bridges are safe, and do the maintenance and plan for rehabilitation, sometimes that bridge reconstruction or the rehab is their entire capital budget for a year. So, the expertise that's sometimes needed to inspect these bridges, which is probably why a lot of folks do some consulting work with their inspectors varies a lot too. So, I know that it's a pretty strong trade-off for local communities when they try to repair their bridges when they're a small community and a bridge is such a big part of their transportation budget. And then also, they're not, you know, other than the MTF, the Michigan Transportation Fund, those dollars that are used for both roads and bridges, the state and locals obviously use more money on a higher percentage on roads and bridges. There's that program, the local bridge program, that's funded through a half cent on the current gas tax, but that program is capped at about $15 million dollars a year. When I looked at the story, they received over 427 applications in 2018 for a cost of $308 million, but that cap left them at only 105 bridge projects. So, maybe one out of four that got funded, which, a lot of times, local communities will apply to this local bridge program fund to help get money to rehabilitate or replace a bridge. Year after year after year, I’ve talked to communities then they've tried for several years. I mean, the need is definitely there among these smaller communities.

Jeff Cranson: I'm glad you raised that point because that puts in stark relief, you know, what the issues are with funding and how these communities are hurting to maintain, you know, what we have. And it's just like anything, you know, whether it's a building, you know, a library, a school, or a bridge, you have to build it but then you also have to continue putting in money for maintenance. That is a good segue into why you're speaking to the Transportation Asset Management Council, which, I’ll admit, is a bureaucratic mouthful of words, but Michigan has become a pioneer sort of, you know, out of necessity in asset management and figuring out how to use data, just like you did in your reporting, to closely monitor roads and bridges and figure out where can we get the most bang for our buck, you know, what kind of maintenance can we do to maintain something. How much money do we put into it before it has to be completely rebuilt? And I think that's why it's so important to look at the numbers, and look at the data, and use that as your basis for what you do and, you know, Michigan and several agencies that subscribe to good asset management practices, have been able to stretch their dollars because of that. But long term, we're going to have to do something more serious, you know, just like the governor says, ‘fix the damn roads.’ It's still going to be an issue and I think your reporting has put a good spotlight on that so—

Kristi Tanner: Thank you.

Jeff Cranson: One other thing that you found out along the way, that any bridge that has a structural problem, that's load restricted, or closed, you'll hear people say, you know, that bridge is dangerous and, you know, bridge engineers bristle at that because they say the bridge itself isn't dangerous, the way it's been maintained or not maintained is what sets up a dangerous situation. How did you wrestle with that language in your stories so you could at once draw attention to the problem, but not over dramatize the condition of any specific bridge?

Kristi Tanner: So, I guess, first thing is I put my biases out there. I’m a data reporter, so, sorry Jeff, by default I’m super boring.

Jeff Cranson: [Laughing]

Kristi Tanner: I have to be honest, and I try to let the data just speak for itself, which doesn't always make my editors happy because, you know, writing is kind of drawing people into the story and I can see how that happens. Certainly, I think there's a quote here or there, I looked for that term when you asked me about this for the conference, I looked to see if I had that in there and, you know, I know that we did in our definitions. For example, when we tried to explain in our first story that came out, we tried to just lay the foundation half literally for the different components of a bridge and to explain how a bridge could be rated. You know, up front we are really clear that a bridge listed in poor condition does not necessarily mean it's unsafe, but it does mean it needs attention, right? So, we try to get the details of what that means and try to flesh it out. We also spent a little bit of time talking about closed bridges, or even weight restrictions, and Matt Chynoweth, the director of MDOT’s bridge program, was very clear and explaining to me, which we include in the story, that restricting bridge weights also doesn't mean they're dangerous. It means that, you know, you're trying to reduce the weight to extend the lifetime of the bridge, and also to protect it from having large trucks go over which would also reduce that lifetime. So, we try to do that in our wording, but I got to be honest, it's a really slippery slope too, right, because when we went out there after you do the hard work of the analysis and trying to understand the data and figure out what the inspection process is, we went out and looked at a lot of bridges, as many as we could in the time that we had, and even the governor had a quote early on that we've talked about before about school buses driving over that Miller Road bridge that was held up with temporary supports. And it still kind of illuminates kind of a slippery slope where we are in terms of local bridge funding, right? We have a lot of bridges in poor condition. They're open because they're safe right now, but there's certainly going to be a lot more closing. I think to further illustrate that when we were talking to Governor Whitmer, she mentioned to us and she said it before I think in the in the press after that in Michigan we're closing a bridge every other week, she said closing bridges because there's no real revenue to solve the problem. That's what she said, and, you know, I had to check the numbers to make sure they're right and, you know, obviously it's right. The data supported that for the year that I was doing the reporting, and I think the bridge closures really are an illustration of when that inspection process is working, and people are safe. And that's kind of what we're trying to hold folks accountable to is are these processes working in Michigan, as best as we can.

Jeff Cranson: You just made every bridge inspector's day by pointing that out because that does mean that the process is working, and it means that their diligence and vigilance is paying off, so—

Kristi Tanner: I can't explain mother nature. I mean, and there are, you know, this isn't a failsafe, but that's the most important key, right? The component that I came away with as a reporter is that this inspection process is a huge piece of guaranteeing—not guaranteeing, sorry, because of mother nature and other things, but of helping to ensure that these bridges are actually safe for the traveling public to be on.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, well said. That's great, I think that's a good place to end it, and thanks again, Kristi, for taking the time to do this and for talking to the Asset Management Council as well.

Kristi Tanner: Thanks for asking me, Jeff. I look forward to talking to you again soon.

Jeff Cranson: Thanks again for listening to this week's edition of Talking Michigan Transportation, and I want to give a special thanks to Cory Petee, who does the sound engineering for the podcast, and to Sarah Martin, of MDOT, who does the show's intro and closing.

Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Check out show notes and more by subscribing on Apple podcast.