A New Direction

Michigan has reached the crossroads: Without more funds to repair and replace roads and bridges, long-range improvement plans will hit a giant pothole.
road construction
MDOT believes it has found a promising new funding formula, which it employed on the I-75 project in Oakland County. // Photographs by Justin Maconochie

Most motorists in Michigan who travel over some of the country’s most rutted and crumbling roads likely missed a seminal moment in Lansing where a figurative road not
taken made the state the national pothole punchline that it is today.

The year was 1997, in the middle of John Engler’s 12-year run as governor, and the state was already showing up on various surveys of the country’s worst roads and bridges.

Political and business leaders at the time were in rare agreement that new revenue devoted to fixing and maintaining state roads and bridges was desperately needed. They advised the governor to champion a 10- to 12-cent fuel tax increase for road and bridge repair and maintenance. At the time, the average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline in Michigan was $1.22.

The governor, however, made his reputation cutting taxes, not raising them. Ten to 12 cents was out of the question. He agreed to a fuel tax increase of four cents.

The new revenue proved to be way short of what was needed, according to a study commissioned in 2013 by the Michigan Department of Transportation. The 16-page review by two out-of-state consultants — “The Road Not Taken, Michigan’s Highway Funding Decisions: Lessons from the Past and Implications for the Future” — spelled out the inadequacy of the road and bridge revenue hike.

Between 1997 and 2012, the four-cent increase brought in nearly $2.9 billion, but less than half of that, $1.4 billion, went directly to MDOT. The rest was sent to local governments for their roads, as required by state law.

Only about one-third of MDOT’s share went to major road and bridge improvements, the study showed. Because of the shortfall, the state borrowed $1.5 billion, which further cut into MDOT’s budget for roads as millions more in agency payments went annually for servicing the debt and covering non-road maintenance.

Another complication for MDOT during that period was an unexpected 55-percent increase in the cost of road-building materials, a spike triggered by aggressive road construction in China and India. The study concluded that if a 14-cent increase had been adopted, MDOT could have avoided borrowing money. Also, it would have fixed and maintained roads and bridges for years into the future, while saving more than $200 million annually in debt payments.

William Robert, vice president of Spy Pond Partners in Arlington, Mass., who co-authored the study, says the dynamic in Lansing today over road and bridge funding appears to be the same as it was in 1997.

“Many of the states we work with are in the process of addressing, or have recently addressed, how they fund transportation through a combination of state legislation, ballot initiatives, bonds, and other approaches,” Robert says. “The basic issue is that federal funding for transportation, largely derived from the gas tax, has not kept up with inflation, and states are finding they need to fund a larger and larger share of their transportation investment needs through other means.”

MDOT believes it has found a promising new funding formula with an innovative, public-private collaboration it entered late last year with a group of contractors and equity partners who will finance, design, build, and maintain the last 5.5 miles of the massive 18-mile reconstruction of I-75 now underway in Oakland County.

Teaming up with Oakland Corridor Partners, as the private group is known, brought an immediate infusion of $600 million of construction funds that will shave 10 years off the projected 18-year building schedule. The new completion date is 2023.

As part of the deal, Oakland Corridor Partners signed a 30-year contract with MDOT. The first five years is for all aspects of the design and construction of the freeway replacement. The last 25 years is for maintenance — the area in which the partners believe they will turn a profit. They say that given the materials selected and the way the freeway is being constructed, it will require minimal maintenance and boost the profit on their investment.

Oakland Corridor Partners includes some of the nation’s top construction and investment groups as well as local companies.

“We had to use some sort of innovative way to get this project delivered, because originally it was nine segments of construction spread out over 18 years,” says Robert Morosi, a senior MDOT spokesman. “Now we’re able to combine five separate segments between 13 Mile and Eight Mile roads into one job.

“There are a lot of efficiencies gained by combining those segments, from economies of scale to buying all the steel for the bridges in one contract instead of five separate contracts. All the traffic control and things of that nature are being done more efficiently under this model.”

Oakland Corridor Partners includes some of the nation’s top construction and investment groups as well as local companies. Members of the group include John Laing Investment Limited in London, England; AECOM Capital in Los Angeles; Jay Dee Contractors Inc. in Livonia; Troy-based Ajax Paving Industries Inc., Dan’s Excavating Inc. in Shelby Township; and CA Hull, a bridge construction and rehabilitation company in Westland.

The group is underwriting $600 million in tax-exempt private activity bonds through the Michigan Strategic Fund. It will be responsible for all phases of the last 5.5 miles of the project, including 28 bridges, from Eight Mile Road to north of 13 Mile Road, as well as the construction of a four-mile-long, 14-foot-wide drainage and storage tunnel that will run 100 feet beneath the northbound service drive. This will eliminate flooding on the freeway at 12 Mile Road.

“The design and construction teams are all local, they have extensive experience in southeast Michigan, they know what lies ahead of them, and how you rip up a freeway that was built in 1970 where you’re going to find a surprise or two here and there — but nothing they feel they can’t overcome,” Morosi says.

David Nachman, a veteran project director at John Laing Investment, serves as the CEO of the partnership. “Our team members are local firms who are excited to be investing in Michigan to bring critical infrastructure to their communities,” he says. “We’re also thrilled to know we will remain in the community well after construction, preserving and maintaining the roadway. We’re fully committed.”

Morosi says MDOT’s sole responsibility will be snow removal on the completed roadways. “That’s a safety issue, (and) we didn’t want to have a private development firm come in and plow five miles of snow. Other than snow removal, the development team is on the hook for every other element of maintenance for 25 years.”

The deal with Oakland Corridor Partners includes roughly $50 million in so-called P3 availability payments the state will make to the partners for each year of the contract, an amount that represents 5 percent of MDOT’s annual construction budget.

“We’re very confident moving into this agreement. There are built-in protections for the public investment. If they don’t meet certain standards, there’s a financial penalty,” Morosi says. “Most important is the turn-back clause. In 2048, when they turn (the freeway) back to the state, everything affiliated with it — bridges, pavement, drainage, utilities — has to be in good condition.”

Morosi said the public-private P3 approach could be expanded for future projects after the I-75 project is completed. 

“We need to do our due diligence to see how this model works out during the construction process,” he says. “We’re kind of taking a wait-and-see approach to assess any bumps in the road, lessons learned, what can be improved upon, (and) what needs to be tweaked a little bit. We’re not going to just jump into the fire with all our major projects using this contract model, but we do remain very confident that this is going to work out and be a benefit.”

Another wrinkle for the I-75 reconstruction will be the replacement of two cloverleaf interchanges — one at 14 Mile Road and the other at Big Beaver Road — with diverging-diamond interchanges. They will be similar to the one recently installed at I-75 for the heavily traveled University Drive exit in Auburn Hills.

The diverging-diamond interchange is a 1970s French innovation that’s catching on in major North American cities. With the layout, motorists cross over from driving on the right side of the road to the left as they go through an interchange. The crossing roads then switch back to standard right-side driving on the other side of the interchange. The switch means fewer stops for drivers and eliminates left-hand turns into oncoming traffic.

Transportation data shows the diverging-diamond pattern is safer as it moves volumes of traffic faster to surface roads. The design also requires less land than a traditional cloverleaf.

The cloverleaf design of I-75 at 14 Mile and Big Beaver roads will be replaced by diverging diamond interchanges. MDOT may add one more such interchange at at I-75 and 12 Mile Road.

Beyond the I-75 improvements, the need for more road funding is spelled out in various reports on the condition of state and local roads. In Michigan, roads fall under three categories of jurisdiction. There’s 10,000 miles of state highways, which equals 8 percent of thoroughfares, that are maintained by MDOT. County road commissions look after 90,000 miles, or 75 percent of the roads, while city or village streets make up the remaining 20,000 miles, or 17 percent, of roadways.

Earlier this summer, the Transportation Asset Management Council examined 88,000 miles of major Michigan roads — freeways, high-capacity thoroughfares, and collector roads — that are eligible for federal aid.

According to its report to the Legislature, 21 percent of the roads are in “good” condition, 38 percent are in “fair” shape, and 41 percent are in “poor” condition. The portion of bad roads, which spans 36,000 lane miles, has risen steadily. In 2006, 25 percent of state roads were rated in poor condition, according to the report.

Another 165,000 miles of local roads that don’t qualify for federal aid weren’t rated by the state. While the local agencies in charge of those roads aren’t required to report on their conditions, 79 road agencies voluntarily submitted ratings for 16,986 miles of their roads that showed 50 percent were in poor condition.

“Given the current rate of road deterioration and given the anticipated funding levels for road preservation and repair, the percentage of roads in poor condition will remain above 40 percent for the foreseeable future,” the report states. “For well over a decade, more roads have deteriorated than have been improved. This has happened every year since 2005, and 2018 was not an exception. This trend must be reversed if Michigan’s roads are to improve.”

Driving on deteriorating roads also comes with a cost to state residents. Michigan motorists pay an average of $648 a year for accelerated vehicle depreciation, repair costs, increased fuel consumption, and tire wear, according to TRIP, a national private nonprofit organization that studies and reports on surface transportation issues.

Another recent national study by QuoteWizard, a Lending Tree company, ranked Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and West Virginia as having the worst roads, with Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida ranking as the best. Michigan was 14th from the bottom on their scale.

The rankings offer a composite score based on a state’s rating in the percentage of poor-condition roads, the annual cost per motorist from roads in need of repair, and the percentage of structurally deficient bridges.

Twenty-four percent of Michigan’s roads were rated in poor condition, while 10.5 percent of the state’s bridges were considered structurally deficient. 

Closer to home, SEMCOG reported in 2018 that only 19 percent of the federal-aid-eligible roads in the seven-county region, including Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, are rated in good condition.

The same report showed Oakland County had the worst federal-aid-eligible roads, with 48 percent rated in poor shape. Macomb was at 43 percent, and Wayne County checked in at 35 percent.

In their first-ever 10-year Asset Management Plan, released earlier this year, Wayne County officials estimated that the county would have to invest more than $3 billion over the coming decade to elevate 90 percent of its roads and bridges to fair to good condition by 2029.

The plan had an even more harsh assessment of the county roads than the 2016-17 data showed, with 58 percent of the roads rated in poor condition. Thirty-one percent of county bridges are in poor to serious condition, and the Miller-Rotunda Road and Grosse Ile Parkway bridges are in immediate need of $70 million in repairs.

Michael G. Van Antwerp, director of the Engineering Division of Wayne County’s Department of Public Services, says the root cause of Michigan’s sorry road conditions is a lack of dedicated road funds.

Some think the truck weight allowed on Michigan’s roads is the cause of their poor condition.

“Ohio (has) the weather changes we get, but Ohio doesn’t have the traffic volumes we get, and at the same time, Ohio has twice the amount of money to spend on roads,” Van Antwerp says. “Michigan spends $250 per capita on roads compared to Ohio, which is increasing its spending to $600 this year.”

A 2015 SEMCOG study showed Michigan spends about one-third less on roads than five other Midwest states with similar winter-summer weather.

Van Antwerp says he’s aware of the negative conclusions Michigan motorists often make in comparing the roads to those in Ohio.

“I just drove on the Ohio turnpike and there are a lot of yellow barrels that seem like they’re all the way along the turnpike. They’re continuously working on their roadway,” Van Antwerp says. “You can drive on I-94 and there are spots where there are orange barrels, but not all the way along like the Ohio turnpike. If we had twice as much money, we would do twice as many projects — that’s just plain and simple.”

According to the latest American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card, 18 percent of Ohio’s 123,000 miles of public roads are in poor condition. For those who point out that Ohio’s spending on roads is supplemented by tolls on its 241 miles of turnpike, a study by Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit research institute, points out that only 4 percent of the $5 billion Ohio spends on roads comes from tolls — and all of that money goes to maintaining turnpike roadways without any additional public subsidies.

Ohio will have even more money for its roads, as the state’s legislature and governor in June agreed to raise the gas tax 37.5 percent — to 38.5 cents from 28 cents per gallon for roadwork.

Van Antwerp says Michigan and Wayne County’s location on the Canadian border puts state roads and freeways at a unique disadvantage to roads in Ohio. Ohio doesn’t have an international border crossing, while Michigan has two: one at Port Huron and the other in Detroit, in Wayne County.

“We’re the entrance and exit for a lot of commerce that places a lot of heavy truck traffic on our roads,” he says. “Ohio has I-75 that goes through it, but there isn’t a whole lot of industry off I-75, so there isn’t that much more truck traffic getting on or off that stretch of freeway.”

Wayne County’s freeway entrances to and from the Ambassador Bridge, meanwhile, are choke points for all heavy loads of industrial products going in or out of Canada and the U.S., Van Antwerp explains. “The agriculture industry, the manufacturing industry, the automotive industry from Canada, they’re all coming through Wayne County and onto our roads.”

The Wayne County engineer says another canard critics blame for the condition of Michigan roads is the 164,000-pound limit the state allows for trucks that spread their load over 11 axles. The federal weight limit for trucks is 80,000 pounds, without the 11-axle specification.

Five years ago, the Michigan Senate rejected a proposal that would have reduced the state’s maximum weight limit for trucks to the federal 80,000-pound standard.

“If you look at the federal standard, they’re allowed more weight per axle, but less overall weight, whereas Michigan allows more overall weight but less weight per axle. There are federal studies that show no difference, so that’s the scientific data we rely on,” Van Antwerp says. “It stands to reason that if you have more weight per axle with the federal standard and less weight per axle with the state standard, then I would say the weight allowed in Michigan isn’t the culprit.”

Van Antwerp says he would be more concerned about splitting the weight onto two trucks than having one heavy vehicle with 11 axles. “I’m more worried about additional trucks than I’m worried about weight on a vehicle because it’s the dynamic loading, not the static loading, that takes the toll on the road,” he says.

The stopping and starting of two trucks with half the weight doubles the number of times a roadway is hit, and on a deteriorating roadway, two trucks hitting a weakened spot would create a bigger pothole than one truck.

“Rather than truck weight, I would go back to the fact that we don’t have the money. The roads have been neglected for 20 years or longer, and we finally hit the tipping point,” he says. “We’ve been putting Band Aids on everything and now we’re running out of places to put the second Band Aid.”

Road Work

Before being mixed, materials for Michigan roads are tested at the Wayne County DPS Testing and inspection office in Wayne to ensure the best possible quality.

As a small boy, Keith Donaldson, manager of the Wayne County Department of Public Service’s Testing and Inspection Office in Wayne, spent hours on end in the backyard of his Detroit home building roads for his Match Box cars and trucks. “I never thought that one day I would be building roads for a living,” he chuckles as he shows a visitor around the lab.

Donaldson now supervises the facility and a nine-member team that monitors all aggregate, concrete, and asphalt used in building county roads.

Although neither he nor his lab crew grind roadways or pour asphalt or concrete, they have a hand in every road project Wayne County undertakes.

The lab on Michigan Avenue is one of the state’s best. The work performed by the staff, and the technical testing they carry out on all road-making materials, might be one explanation for why Wayne County roads received a better grade than Oakland and Macomb counties in a recent report conducted by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

Motorists driving by a road construction site can’t see the scientific efforts the county lab staff performs before they green light a project.

Before road contractors start a project, for example, the aggregate material to be used is tested at the lab for conformity in shape and size. For example, too much chert — known for its beauty among rock collectors and gemologists — can cause concrete to break apart more quickly.

“We typically go to the quarry or the project site and sample the material,” Donaldson says. “From there, we bring it back to our laboratory and run the prescribed tests on it. Once we approve the material, the concrete producer can make the concrete with that material, and then we test it again at the job site.”

Every time concrete or asphalt is poured on a county job, a lab technician goes to the site and tests the materials against standards set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“First we test the temperature of the concrete. It has to be within 40 degrees to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We then test the slump, which is how much the material will fall when it’s not contained,” he says. “Then we test for the air content, which is one of the main parameters we look for at the job site. Air content allowable (in) concrete is 5.5 percent to 8 percent.”

Asphalt undergoes similar testing. “It’s heated to 300 degrees when it comes from the producers, is loaded into trucks at temperature, delivered to the job, and put into a paving machine and rolled with the steel drum rollers,” Donaldson explains. “Asphalt can contain up to 3.5 percent of air.”

The last task a technician performs at each site is to remove 5 pounds of concrete or asphalt material. After a machine cuts a section of road 4 inches in diameter and 8 inches deep, multiple samples are transported back to the lab, where they’re subjected to 28 days in moist temperatures of 70 degrees to 78 degrees, at 95 percent relative humidity.

From there, the core samples are placed in a compressive strength machine to determine the rigidity of the concrete. The reinforced steel bars used with the concrete are tested for tensile strength.

In turn, asphalt samples are heated to 300 degrees as they undergo four tests. One determines the amount of asphalt and the liquid that holds all the aggregate together. Next is a gradation test, which determines the amount of aggregate in the asphalt. The various layers of pavement require certain size aggregate, with the top layer being a fine, smooth surface favored by all classes of drivers. The asphalt is next tested for its density without air in it, and then tested again with air added to it.

“That gives us a percentage of air in the mixture, which is probably the most important parameter of asphalt,” Donaldson says.

If any of the material tested is found to be out of specification, the contractors involved in the project could face a penalty. In the majority of such cases, fines can reach as high as 25 percent of the overall value of the material used.

“A 50 percent penalty would be a total failure, and that becomes a case of remove and replace — but that rarely happens,” Donaldson says. “Asphalt should last 12 to 15 years before replacement, while concrete should go 15 to 20 years or more with proper base material. Typically, if everything passes our tests, you should have a pavement that lasts a long time.”

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