Detroit Free Press: Get Ready for Pothole Hell!
Monday, February 2, 2009
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Rachel Miller already is dodging big potholes on the Southfield Freeway as she commutes from Ferndale to Dearborn. And the spring thaw that brings out tire-killers is still weeks away.
"I feel like I'm playing dodge 'em," said Miller, a communications worker, describing the pocked terrain between 8 Mile and West McNichols roads in Detroit. "I try to stay in the middle lane as long as I can. ... I think they're trying to keep up with it, but it's just to the point where the freeway is disintegrating."
If you're driving in metro Detroit, you're sharing Miller's pain. This brutally cold and snowy winter already has punched potholes into roads, busting tires, and strapped road maintenance budgets.
It's created a perfect storm for road officials and drivers: Already bad roads are getting worse as money to fix them shrivels.
If the final two months of winter are as brutal as the past two, Michigan transportation officials say this spring could be one of the roughest in recent memory, even for bad road tested Michigan drivers.
"It's not a very good situation," Lorenzo Blount, Wayne County roads division director, said last week. "It's been a very cold winter. If it gets warm really quickly, you get that freeze thaw, and it gets ugly."
The potholes on Miller's section of the Southfield offers a peek at what's ahead.
This season's extended cold has frozen the ground deeply, so it likely will take longer to thaw and dry out. That, in turn, may mean a longer period of unstable road bases, leaving more time for potholes, said Bob Hoepfner, county highway engineer for the Road Commission of Macomb County.
"It's just been so cold so long," Hoepfner said. "When the ground thaws, that's really when we're going to see the breakup of our roadways."
Craig Bryson, spokesman for the Road Commission for Oakland County, said a series of wicked freeze thaw cycles could make the pothole situation worse than last year's prodigious crop.
"For the really severe potholes, we will still respond as quickly as we possibly can, that element won't change," Bryson said. "What may change is that the routine pothole patching ... there will likely be less of it, less people doing it, which means, bottom line, that it may take longer for nonemergency potholes to get filled."
Rob Morosi, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said last year's harsh winter forced metro Detroit road commissions to spend $3 million more than budgeted for salting and plowing expressways and major state roads. To make up for that, the state cut mowing and litter pickup programs last spring and summer.
Service cuts planned
Already this year, Morosi said, the tri-county road commissions have spent 60% of their winter maintenance budgets, and at least two more months of winter weather are still ahead. Without new funding, officials already are planning for another round of service cuts.
While winter expenses are rising, revenue is shrinking. Due primarily to declining gas-tax revenues, Michigan's funding for construction and maintenance of expressways and major state roads has dwindled to about $900 million in 2009, from highs of around $1.5 billion earlier this decade.
"We keep falling farther and farther behind," said Mike Nystrom, spokesman for the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, a construction industry group.
It's been equally bad for county and local road agencies, whose primary sources of road funding, state fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, have been steadily declining for several years.
Michigan Transportation Fund revenues from December 2007 to November 2008 were just below $1.9 billion, a drop of nearly $66 million compared with the same period the year before, Bryson said.
A task force appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm concluded last fall that the state needs an additional $3 billion a year to get all state and local roads into good shape. That's about double what's currently being spent statewide.
State officials hope for some relief from President Barack Obama's new stimulus package. But they warn the money can't be used for routine maintenance like pothole patching.
Billions and billions behind
The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments estimates that the seven-county region faces a minimum $30 billion shortfall in road funding over the next 20 years. SEMCOG expects that number to rise when the group releases new projections later this year.
That translates into less money for preventative maintenance that could keep roads in good shape longer and stave off messes like Romeo Plank between Cass Avenue and Clinton River Road in Clinton Township, a spot Scott Czasak hates to drive. He and thousands of others will get relief this summer when that long-battered stretch is resurfaced.
"I'm 26 years old," said Czasak, a substitute teacher from Macomb Township, "and it's been this bad as long as I can remember."
Toby Soboleski of Redford Township said he's sick of being surprised by danger spots, as he was in mid-January by a huge chuckhole on north Merriman Road. He was driving the 2008 Dodge Charger R/T he bought in late October. Luckily, it wasn't damaged.
"I slammed into that thing, and I thought for sure I broke something," said Soboleski, a workers compensation adjuster. "I saw it a millisecond before I hit it. You know, what can you do?"