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Gongwer News Service: Counties, State Look for Ways to Save on Roads in Tough Economy

Friday, September 10, 2010   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sara Jacobs
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Expected budget cuts of up to 50 percent have forced road commissions and the Department of Transportation to maintain or repair only highly traveled roads that pose the biggest safety risk and have pushed many counties to find cheaper or more durable materials, transportation officials said. 


Besides shrinking staff, putting off new equipment purchases and delaying relatively minor maintenance issues such as mowing or snow plowing on rural roads, many counties have also turned to less expensive materials such as "poor man's asphalt," essentially crushed stone atop asphalt, said Monica Ware, spokesperson for the County Road Association of Michigan. 


Some are also seeking a state grant that would go to counties that use recycled tires mixed with asphalt, she said. 


It isn't pursuing the grant, but the Calhoun County Road Commission in 2008 switched to recycled asphalt and concrete and got creative with materials by mixing sand and salt on winter roads instead of using salt only, saving about $400,000 a year. 


The Road Commission for Oakland County, where some of the state's most highly trafficked roads are located, maintains about 2,700 miles of county road and 230 miles of state roads. (MDOT contracts out maintenance to counties for the 10,000 roads in its jurisdiction in 64 out of Michigan's 83 counties). 


Oakland County is experimenting with a new type of concrete that, while not much less expensive, is expected to last years longer than the asphalt it formerly used. 


"In theory, concrete lasts longer so even though we aren't seeing a major price difference, if it gets us another five years then we've come out ahead," said Commission Public Information Officer Craig Bryson. 


That county, which has seen cuts in road funding of about 5 percent, is also testing out a new way to maintain gravel roads, a move that Mr. Bryson said could reduce costs by as much as 90 percent. 


Calhoun County, which has about half as much money as in prior years, expects savings from switching to a more expensive but longer lasting material used to seal the 1,300 miles of county roads and 450 miles of state roads it maintains, said Kevin Henning, managing director of the Calhoun County Road Commission. 


The old sealant kept roads in decent condition for about five years, whereas the new material will last closer to seven years before it needs to be reapplied, he said. While it is critical to reapply the sealant when its effectiveness wears off, at the pace it is going with budget limitations, the county will probably reapply the sealant an average of every 10 years to 12 years. 


At that point, said Mr. Henning, roads are so deteriorated they probably should be rebuilt, which would cost about $250,000 a mile compared to the $20,000 a mile cost for sealing. As for the state, it is required to address the possibility of a slashed budget and therefore has eliminated 257 projects under the assumption that the budget will go from $1.4 billion in the current year to $639 million next year. That cut will occur if lawmakers fail to find $84 million in state match money and Michigan loses $475 million in federal funds as a result, said MDOT spokesperson Bill Shreck. 


However, under a budget deal reached this week, the $84 million would be pulled from other areas of the department's budget so the state can make its match. 


Without increased revenue, however, Mr. Shreck said the state is at "a critical point" where all of the 10,000 roads in MDOT's jurisdiction will revert to poor condition, not a good economic prospect since it costs about seven times more to revive those roads than to maintain a road already in good condition. 


Mr. Henning agreed, saying about 200 miles of road in Calhoun County are already in poor condition and at risk of reverting back to gravel in the next five years if the county and townships can't find enough money to repair them. 


Allowing those roads to deteriorate to gravel would save money in the short term, but it actually costs more in his county to maintain gravel than paved roads, he said. 


While officials disagreed on whether infrequently maintained gravel roads are a safety concern or a driver annoyance, they all said reverting to gravel is a backward movement that shows a lack of investment by the state in its own infrastructure. 


Said Mike Nystrom, vice president of government and public relations for the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, "We need to let businesses know we are investing in our state, so they should too." 


Mr. Shreck added that for every dollar the state spends on transportation, it can expect to reap five times that amount in economic development. 


That estimate comes from the 2008 Transportation Funding Taskforce report, which also suggested increasing transportation dollars with a mix of increased user fees, such as higher registration fees and gas taxes. 


The report said drivers would see no more than a $10 increase in the cost of driving, which Mr. Nystrom said is far less than paying for wheel alignments or new shocks as a result of driving on roads full of potholes. "You're going to pay either way, with increased user fees, or down the line with increased maintenance costs," he said. 


Mr. Bryson said if there are fewer dollars for road maintenance, there will likely be fewer dollars funneling to counties to maintain roads under contract. 


"My biggest concern is safety," he said. "With our vehicles constantly breaking down and fewer bodies in the drivers seat, if we have another heavy winter, it could become a safety issue." 


If the state fails to raise revenues, Mr. Nystrom said, people can expect to see even more litter, potholes, snow and grass, as all of those issues will, and in many cases already have, become secondary to the priority of keeping roads safe. 


The future of any gas tax increase for the coming fiscal year is still in question. 


"A lot of this depends on whether or not the governor wants to get involved and if leadership's interested," said Sen. Jud Gilbert (R-Algonac), one of the proponents of a plan to increase transportation revenue. "Unless that happens I don't see much happening." 


And he said at this point there had not been discussions in the Senate Republican Caucus on the proposal, though he noted most of the measures to enact it are in the House. 


Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Chelsea), who is leading the effort in her chamber, did not expect action during budget talks. "I don't think you going to see that before lame duck," she said. 


"It doesn't seem to be the will of the people or the Legislature at this time unfortunately." Ms. Byrnes said there would be some transportation funding issues addressed in the budget, "but it'll be one-time patches and not really addressing what the need is." 

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