Nancy Slater started her own Facebook group to draw attention to road conditions in her neighborhood. Years later, will the roads finally be repaired?

HOLTON TOWNSHIP, Mich.—Nancy Slater was somewhat reluctant to do this interview. It’s not that she is a skeptic of the press or doesn’t want her story publicized; quite the opposite. But it seems like every time she goes public, another pothole appears. 

“The more I talk about it, the more I publicize it, it seems like the less likely we are to get any sort of activity at all,” she said.

Four years ago, Slater’s story, as well as that of her husband Leon Slater, was documented by Harper’s Magazine. In “Bumpy Ride,” an out-of-town journalist came around for a ride-along, which he described as “tooth-jarring” on roads that looked like they had been “carpet bombed”. By the end of their odyssey through the rural, asphalt-turned-gravel roads of Holton Township, Leon Slater had lost a muffler. Then, his truck puttered out altogether.

That article, which was featured nationally on messaging boards and in print, drew attention to just how unnavigable roads were in poor, rural communities in Michigan and around the country. But for all the chatter it garnered, Holton Township—pejoratively pegged as the “armpit of Muskegon County”—witnessed its roads fall into further shambles, without the funding to stop it.

Four years later, conditions have gotten worse.

“I’ve had friends tell me, two or three friends tell me, that they don’t even like to come visit me anymore because they don’t like to come down the road,” Nancy said.

On this Tuesday morning, Nancy had an unexpected visitor—her grandson, the youngest of five. He’s 4 years old, but has grown one inch recently, he makes sure to interject. 

The poor roads can make visitors tough to come by. The Slaters like going out to the town or having a nice dinner at a restaurant as much as anybody. But given the tumultuous, nauseating drive, they limit these trips when they can, especially since Leon works out of the house in excavating.

Whenever Nancy is going to see friends, the burden is on her. Just two friends are willing to journey into the abyss of potholes and road ruin.

Usually, the Slaters enjoy the company of themselves and their two elderly labradors, in a comfortable home surrounded by farmland. 

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Small Town Problems

The county road commission has claimed before that it’s the heavy farm equipment that has pulverized the roads. The roads were once smooth, well-paved, and safe, after all. But in the past couple of decades, they’ve transformed beyond the point of repair and into dereliction, the Muskegon County Roads Commission said. 

The roads, which were once formed with a rock base, topped off with sun-hot asphalt, now are a shell of their former selves—and a cracked shell at that. 

Just like emergency room visits cost more than preventative health, roadwork is the same: More investment out front can save crippling, unfeasible costs down the road. The roads, residents and the county commission says, cannot be repaired as is. They’re too damaged structurally below the surface, and they would need to be torn up and started anew. 

The Harper’s Magazine article quoted the price as $300,000 for just the one-mile section in front of the Slaters; that’s a lot for a cash-strapped area. Asphalt prices haven’t shrunk since then, either. 

Therein lies another problem: Residents say that the Muskegon County Roads Commission has not stayed on top of repairs.

Numerous communications spanning a decade between township officials and Muskegon County Roads Commissioners reveal that these problems have not been adequately addressed.

“It’s just horrible,” Nancy said. “The blacktop road is bad, but the dirt road is worse.”

In 2008, the township sued the Muskegon County Roads Commission over who was responsible for the charge of a collapsed culvert, which had led the road to cave in. The judge, Timothy Hicks, ruled in favor of the township, and in his decision included that the commission must “keep local roads in reasonable repair” safe for travel.

The Slaters and others believe this has not happened since. Instead, Nancy said, she’s felt retribution for the decision, leading to fewer repairs on desperately needed roads.

She now feels like most hope is gone for repairing the roads around her home, where she’s been for four decades.

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Soon to Be Improved?

Recently, an infrastructure bill passed Congress that will infuse a historic amount of funding in the underpinnings of Michigan society. The back-and-forth and negotiation was well-documented, but finally, it passed, setting money aside for water, bridges, and roads.

Tuesday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer informed state agencies to prepare to roll out the freshly funded programs. Roads are top of mind, and the new infrastructure bill will fold into an existing effort of the state government. A press release from the governor’s office said the money will be made available to rural areas to “rejuvenate local roads with the right mix of materials.”

“We are getting ready to build up local roads and bridges across Michigan, create thousands of good-paying jobs for Michiganders, and ensure small businesses, downtowns, and neighborhoods have high-quality, reliable infrastructure to rely on as we usher in a new era of prosperity for our state,” Whitmer said in the press release. 

Michigan has more than 1,200 bridges and 7,300 miles of highway in poor condition. The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded Michigan a D+ for its infrastructure.

Michigan’s Department of Transportation will see a huge boost to what it can send to local communities through grants. From there, it will also have more money to pass down to municipalities, through new and existing programs. 

One program includes funding for local roads, including culvert repairs and repairs for safety, according to the Michigan Municipal League, which Holton Township could qualify for.

The legislature will also be in charge of determining where money is appropriated, and for what projects.

“Everyone in Michigan is well-aware of the need to fix our roads, bridges and critical infrastructure,” said Doug Stockwell, Business Manager of Operating Engineers 324 in the governor’s press release.

One of the few successes Nancy has seen locally came when the township treasurer secured a grant for replacing downtown curbs. The downtown, much like neighborhoods, could use some touching up, she said.

In the meantime, Holton Township residents are trying to brainstorm their own solutions, ranging from legal action to community funding. But Nancy said that the latter—an idea to try to raise funds non-governmentally to contribute to new streets—would set a bad precedent. She thinks it’s up to the government to provide safe roadways for people, not the residents.

The infrastructure bill might be the best chance at truly remaking the roadways and replacing the bedrock below that’s needed for long-term, sustainable safe driving and affordable maintenance ahead. Where the money will go has not yet been decided.

Nancy won’t give up with her efforts, either. Her oldest grandchildren are now at the age where they can have their learner’s permits, and she wants them to visit without obstruction. More importantly, she wants them to be safe.

“It’s unsafe for a good driver, let alone someone who is just learning,” she said.

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