A destroyed street in Detroit, Michigan, USA, 12 January 2014. Detroit, the cradle of America_s automobile industry and once the nation_s fourth-most-populous city, filed for bankruptcy in summer 2013. Since then, the city leaders strive to keep the public life alive and at the same time reduce debt. The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is held in Detroit from 13  to 26 January. Photo: ULI DECK/dpa | usage worldwide Photo by Uli Deck via Getty
A destroyed street in Detroit, Michigan, USA, 12 January 2014. Detroit, the cradle of America_s automobile industry and once the nation_s fourth-most-populous city, filed for bankruptcy in summer 2013. Since then, the city leaders strive to keep the public life alive and at the same time reduce debt. The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is held in Detroit from 13 to 26 January. Photo: ULI DECK/dpa | usage worldwide

Fixing the “damn roads” started as a local effort from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but now has the backing of the president. That means cash dollars towards long term road repairs. 

ST. CLAIR, Mich.—It’s an often quipped joke that the two seasons of Michigan are winter and construction. 

In part, that’s because short-term but necessary fixes like one in St. Clair in—which in 2011 repaired a town’s road that crumbled into the river—are just more financially achievable than really addressing the structural issues causing the pattern of disrepair.

Basically, Michigan’s road work has been temporary fixes and that’s led to a D+ rating

The coronavirus has only made the situation in Michigan worse. Less travel meant a decrease in gas tax revenue for the state to use on repairs. And local roads in rural Michigan are, by and large, not slated for state-funded repairs.

That’s where the new federal infrastructure plan comes in for 2021 and beyond.

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President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure package intends to get people back to work and repair the crumbling roads, including 7,000 miles of Michigan highways in poor condition. Michigan miles are among the 20,000 nationwide slated for repairs under the infrastructure plan.

Not only will those repairs save money on car maintenance for drivers and make commutes easier and more pleasant, but if past is precedent they will bring work and economic activity wherever they go. 

Road Work Ahead—And Why We Are OK With It

After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ran on a platform of fixing the damn roads, some of Michigan’s worst roads were actually repaired. That was a blessing to the remote town of St. Clair on the Canadian border. 

For over six years, St. Clair Highway, also known as 31 Mile Road, had been closed right on the edge of the 5,000 person town. A section of it had fallen into the Pine River, which joins the St. Clair River at the town’s heart. 

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In 2011, the slope from roadside to river began to fail, and despite efforts to install a retaining wall, a crack developed. Within two years, the road was deemed impassable by the city. As it turned out, the road had been built on a thin, unstable layer of clay, which rendered the seawall ineffective. 

By 2019, St. Clair’s Department of Public Works deemed the slope to have stabilized, and St. Clair Highway repairs began. The timing was fortunate, as only one year later the strain of the coronavirus on local economies would’ve made funding the repairs significantly more challenging. 

St. Clair Highway is a success story, but perhaps a fleeting one. The collapse of the soil was linked to changing water levels in the Pine River, and its current solidity is linked to rising water levels. The road is still resting on clay that one consulting firm compared to toothpaste. A meaningful repair of the road would require soil stabilization, which may well be beyond the town’s means. 

Finally, The Investment Michigan Waited For 

While St. Clair Highway is a prime example of what can happen to Michigan’s roads over time, every single community in Michigan has at least one story of a crumbling, decayed road. In fact, the same rising water line that helped St. Clair fix its road took a toll on roads across the state, including in Traverse City. And like in St. Clair, the short-term fix is a much smaller bill than the long-term one.

“These things get expensive in a hurry,” Director for the Bureau of Development for the Michigan Department of Transportation Brad Wieferich told reporters. He explained that immediate fixes for roads damaged by high water levels would cost $5 million, but estimated that the kind of repairs needed to create lasting solutions would be a $100 million investment. 

Traverse City, he said, may need to outright reroute some roads to prevent the damage it saw in early 2020 from rising water levels. And these damages to roads related to water level of the lakes are a microcosm of the state’s larger situation with crumbling roads. Detroit, for instance, has the 5th worst roads in the nation. In Oakland County, at current funding, only half the roads in need of repair can be fixed and those fixes would be temporary.

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That has a direct impact on Michiganders. The damage to the roads costs drivers around $650 per year in wear and tear, repair costs, and inefficiency. 

Michigan’s roads are in need of structural repair, and now, and the help from the White House couldn’t have come at a better time, experts show us. 

“At a time when Michigan was already struggling to fund road repairs after decades of under-investment in infrastructure, this will present more challenges,” Michigan’s Department of Transportation Communications Director Jeff Cranson told MLive earlier in the pandemic. “Existing cash flow will sustain the 2020 projects but there could be reductions to those planned next year.”

See Biden’s full infrastructure plan here.