Where is Gov. Whitmer on her promise to fix the roads, and how far did that marijuana tax revenue even go? We explain what everyone is wondering about Michigan’s biggest dilemma.
SHELBY, Mich.—In an attempt to answer just how bad Michigan’s roads are, Ashby’s Sterling Ice Cream in Shelby Township introduced a new flavor in 2015. It’s a chocolate scoop with thick, black-tar fudge and fudge cups it playfully calls asphalt dubbed the Michigan Pot Hole.
Marketing director Dianne Tunison told the Detroit Free Press that, unsurprisingly, she came up with the idea for the flavor while driving.
“You’re just bumping along … and of course, ice cream is always at the top of my mind, and I thought of the name,” she said. “It’s kind of tongue in cheek and meant to be fun.”
Six years later, it’s still on the menu, and the roads still are awful.
Why Are Our Roads So Bad in the First Place?
Simply, because we’ve been relying on quick, cheap fixes for too long. The numbers and stakes involved in infrastructure repairs are huge, but in principle the concept is a lot like home repairs. They’re things that can be done cheaply or well, but rarely both.
What’s Our Budget to Work on This?
To know what the situation is, we need to know what money we’re working with and where we get it.
In small part, roads are funded by the Michigan Pot Hole ice cream! It also comes from small donations, equipment sales, and marijuana taxes. But primarily, they’re funded by drivers. Registration fees, gas taxes, and other user fees are the primary source of revenue for road repairs and maintenance in Michigan. The total of all the Michigan Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) funding sources gives it about a $5 billion budget.
In our home repair analogy, this is your yearly pay. If you’re making $15 an hour full-time, this is your $31,000 a year. Just like you don’t just pay for fixing your house, MDOT has other priorities too. It has to worry about all state transportation programs.
And Our Marijuana Side Hustle?
The revenue for roads that comes with the marijuana taxes which Michigan voters implemented in 2018 is part of the state’s budget for roads, but is relatively small compared to gas taxes and other user fees.
In 2020, it generated about enough money to finance one serious road project. And roads aren’t the only, or even primary, place that money goes. The lion’s share is split between transportation funding and education equally, with some also being given to cities and counties for projects around the state.
You can think of it like a side hustle. It helps cover some repairs but it isn’t quite the same as a second job. Still, it’s better having it than not.
What’s That Money Being Spent On Then?
If these quick repairs are so cheap, why do we always run out of money to do them? Why aren’t our roads fixed? The reason is our reliance on cheap fixes.
Thing is, because of how long we’ve been doing things this way, with these patch jobs, our entire roof is now one big patch job. If just one in a hundred spots on the roof is leaky, we can keep pace, but a new one in that hundred will become leaky next year.
What this means for the roads is that we’re only dealing with the worst crises that come up each year. To redo the entire state’s roads is just too expensive to be feasible. Again, just laying new pavement on every road in Michigan is so expensive even governments struggle to deal in those numbers. It would be $120 billion.
Because we never can afford the serious, long-term repairs, we’re stuck patching over holes every year, only for new ones to break later.
Why Isn’t That Enough to See Some Relief?
Those repairs are bandages on third-degree burns, explained MDOT director Paul Ajegba. He cited a 2019 project on I-96 between Webberville and Howell which cost the state $16 million. That’s a drop in the bucket next to the $200 million he said a true, lasting repair of the road would’ve cost.
See, when you just fix the immediate problem, the underlying issues that cause it aren’t addressed. Your roof is likely to leak again soon, either in the same spot that was already strained or in a nearby spot that was missed the first time. Your water heater is breaking down, but you only replaced the single critical part, not the others that were close to failure as well. Those larger-scale repairs are much pricier, but they’ll keep your home in good condition longer.
And sometimes you’ll want to reshingle the entire roof or outright replace the water heater. Those will be way more expensive upfront but will save you on future repairs in the long run.
What’s Our Estimate to Get the Whole Job Done?
It’s hard to say for sure, because every road is different. Also cheaper fixes tend not to last as long. But a rule of thumb used by professionals is that to just resurface a mile of road costs $1 million.
This is, in our home repair analogy, the estimate from your contractor for, say, damage to your roof or replacing your water heater.
Can’t We Repair it Cheaper?
Michigan has more than 120,000 miles of paved road. If only one in a hundred of those miles need repair, that means the basic repairs for the road would cost $1.2 billion. Without repairing bridges, fixing embankments, or doing long-term improvements to resist future damage, it would take 20% of MDOT’s budget.
That’s basically how things work right now.
This is just addressing the immediate problem. Fixing just the leak in your roof or repairing, not replacing, your water heater.
What Are the Neighbors Doing About Their Roads?
Just like with our house, our roads have neighbors in Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. And just like in the analogy, those neighbors get a lot of the same weather we do.
Weather is a big deal to roads. Water can scour away the earth around and underneath the roads and seep into the small cracks that erosion creates. When winter comes, those cracks freeze and the road is pushed further apart. Combine that with constant use, and you get potholes.
Our neighbors have done a few things we haven’t, which is why we constantly need to hire roofers and they don’t. One thing they’ve done is go for the bigger fixes that last longer. Another thing they’ve done is implement toll roads which is a little bit like renting the house out instead of living there ourselves. That gives them more money to work with.
What Can We Do Now?
Grants, in the form of federal support. For our roads, this would be getting large-scale support to give Michigan roads the major overhaul they need. That’s part of the American Jobs Plan proposed by President Joe Biden. And just like home repairs give work to contractors, the Jobs Plan creates construction jobs in Michigan.
Otherwise, we could bring in money by renting out the house. Toll roads generally don’t exist in Michigan, but the Mackinac Bridge charges tolls. As a result, it can perform routine maintenance that’s made it one of the most trustworthy bridges in Michigan, able to last half a century without extensive repairs. Not exactly ideal.
What Are the Benefits of Biden’s Support?
Michigan has done the best job it can with the resources it has available. We simply lack the funding to do the major overhauls that would really stabilize the roof or replace the water heater. We’re trapped in this cycle of small repairs that’s familiar to Michigan families on tight budgets. While the numbers involved in infrastructure are much higher, the budgets are no less tight.
The plan calls for the creation of thousands of good-paying jobs to renovate 7,000 miles of Michigan road. And these aren’t quick, cheap fixes, these are the kind of long-term modernization plans that would be built to last. Even Republicans in Michigan’s legislature agree that that kind of government spending is worth pursuing.
We’re looking into the popularity and practicality of toll roads in Michigan, seeing if anyone’s willing to rent the spare room, as it were, but it would take some remodeling. See, toll highways are fundamentally designed differently than freeways like the ones in Michigan. So even seeking that approach, the government grant model in the American Jobs Plan would be the necessary seed money to make the whole system more self-sustaining.
For now, though, we have to deal with the situation we have. Renting the room out later won’t pay for the repairs we need today, it’ll just help things not get this bad again. Much like personal budgets, states can plan ahead but that won’t change problems in front of them already.
Unlike home repairs, though, you can put a tiny, tiny bit of money toward it by eating ice cream.