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The Detroit News: Michigan is pothole paradise

Monday, March 14, 2011   (0 Comments)
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Michigan doesn't need welcome signs to alert travelers they've crossed our border; they can feel it in their teeth.

Molar-jarring potholes pock our roads and let interstate motorists know, "You're not in Ohio anymore."

Maybe I'm just winter weary, but it feels as if the potholes are deeper and wider this year, and more plentiful.

"That's because they are," says Mike Nystrom, head of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

Nystrom explains that a thaw between two major freezes in February beat the roadways to a pulp.

OK, but it froze and thawed in Ohio, too, and in Indiana and a lot of other northern states. Those places cover their roads in salt, too.

And yet they have better roads than Michigan. Nearly everybody does. Michigan always vies with Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Missouri for the worst roads crown in the annual survey of truckers by Overdrive Magazine.
"You get what you pay for," says Nystrom, who cites a report from the Michigan Township Association ranking Michigan 48th in the nation in per-capita road spending.

Nystrom represents road builders, so of course he's an advocate for more money for highways. But the potholes speak for themselves.

Nystrom discounts popular theories that higher truck axle weights and looser construction standards are the culprits. Instead, he points to state policy, which favors stretching available dollars over more miles of roadway by repaving instead of rebuilding.

"That gives you a smoother surface for awhile, but it doesn't last," he says. "For a long-term fix, you have to rebuild right to the base."

It's hard to accept that Michigan isn't paying enough in gasoline taxes, when pump prices here are no cheaper than anywhere else. But Michigan is one of the few states that levy its 6 percent sales tax on gasoline and uses that revenue for purposes other than roads.

And the state also has to send 18.4 cents per gallon to the federal government, which skims off 8 percent to fund the bureaucracy and political boondoggles in other states, such as Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere and Boston's Big Dig.

Michigan has to find more funds for roads, and that means a higher gasoline tax or keeping the sales tax money for roadwork. It's a hard sell, but these potholes are killing us.

Imagine trying to sell out-of-town investors on Michigan, when the first thing they notice after deplaning at Metro are the bombed out roads that service the airport.

Back in the mid-1970s, The Detroit News dispatched its staff on a quest to find the nastiest potholes in Metro Detroit. We ran photos of the worst craters, superimposing a cartoon character named Chucky Chuckhole poking his hard-hatted head out of their depths. As a freshmen reporter, I thought it was a hoot.

Thirty-five years later, less easily amused and worried about the impact of our infuriating infrastructure on my aging choppers, it's not so funny.

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