GUEST VIEW: Pouring more money into potholes

The following editorial was published in the March 26 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune:

It’s that time of year to practice your dodge ’em driving skills.

As Michigan residents, we all know that spring weather means it’s time for a quick steer to the right or left to avoid the inevitable road craters on our roads and streets. But is this year’s pothole season the worst you’ve ever seen? It does seem like that is the case every year. Or maybe this year it is!

Zach Russell, the communications administrator for the Ottawa County Road Commission, says this year’s crop may not be the worst ever for our state, but it may rank up there.

“The severity of potholes largely depends on the weather we are having that year, so it can vary quite a bit from year to year,” he explained. “This year has been particularly bad, not just in our county and not just in Michigan.”

Russell said potholes were a hot topic at a conference he recently attended.

“Anywhere that has weather similar to us has been hit very bad this year with potholes,” he said. “Some road agencies from the East Coast say this has been one of their worst seasons for it. Because we had such a severe winter and then such a dramatic change in weather in January, then back to freezing again in February, it really takes a toll on the roads.”

Bad roads aren’t bad for everyone. They certainly have been good for auto repair shops fixing bent frames and broken tie-rods. But, as motorists, not so good.

“Michigan’s roads are in a horrific state as the freeze/thaw cycle loosens pavement and leaves behind gaping holes,” The Detroit News said in a Feb. 22 editorial. “Some of these monstrous craters are so deep they reveal the steel reinforcing rods near the bottom of the concrete. They are literally destroying vehicles.”

Michigan roads must be in particularly bad shape this year, if the state Legislature’s actions within the past month are any indication. They pushed through a $175 million mid-year appropriation to help provide relief from this year’s pothole crop, which was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder on March 20.

The supplemental appropriation is on top the $2.5 billion state and local road agencies were due to receive for road and bridge work this fiscal year.

The money, which was unspent lapsed funding from the last budget year, is a one-time boost while the state phases in a 2015 law to hike annual funding by $1.2 billion by 2021. In case you forgot, that plan includes a mix of higher fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees and annual transfers of general funds to the transportation budget. So, yes, it’s already costing your pocketbook.

Still, you would think, after all these years and countless paving and repaving of roadways, someone somewhere would come up with a better roadway. One that isn’t susceptible to the freeze/thaw cycle that creates potholes and cracks.

According to Russell, there are always innovations in roads and attempts at creating longer-lasting ones. But, he says, there are two main reasons that doesn’t happen — the inevitable wear, especially in Michigan’s climate, and the cost it would take to create a durable road.

“First, roads receive a lot of wear and tear, so even the best roads will eventually show that wear,” he explained. “Sadly, I don’t see any way we can avoid that. Especially as long as our weather has extremes, it will take its toll on the roads.

“There are different techniques and test materials that are tried out by different agencies from time to time, and we are open to innovations here,” says the spokesman for the local Road Commission. “But, most of those come at a much higher expense and are often untested.”

So, it looks like you can add a third sure thing to life: death, taxes and potholes.

“I know that potholes are something that’s on everyone’s mind this year especially, but they are a product of our Michigan weather and so we’ll continue to combat them as best as possible,” Russell said.

But is it really inevitable? Maybe not, but we may only have our collective voting selves to blame.

“Michigan’s roads are not so much worse than its neighbors because weather conditions here are so different,” The Detroit News said in its February editorial. “Rather, this state has neglected its infrastructure needs for decades, choosing to spend elsewhere money that should have gone into its roads and bridges. When Gov. Rick Snyder pushed for a permanent funding fix — a big increase in the fuel tax — that could have brought streets, highways and interstates up to passable levels in 5-10 years, first the Legislature and then voters turned it down. Instead, the governor got a more modest hike in the fuel tax and an additional appropriation for roads from the general fund.”

In the meantime, the Ottawa County Road Commission and our local street crews will continue to spend the late winter and early spring shoveling that hot black stuff into holes and cracks.

“We are always striving for efficiency, both in our crews and equipment, but there really isn’t many different options other than patching potholes as they come up,” Russell said.

So, the bottom line is that potholes are here to stay, and will likely get bigger unless we pour some really big dollars into Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure. Are the state’s voters (that includes you) and Michigan lawmakers finally ready to do that?

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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