A Bump in the Road, Part 1

This is UGN News Director Mike Hoey writing here.

Many of us in the U.P. don’t like the quality of the roads we drive on.

But unless something is done soon, they’re going to get a lot worse.

In Part 1 of my week-long series, ‘A Bump in the Road’, I take a look at what the statewide situation is doing to the Marquette County Road Commission.

Drive most anywhere in Michigan and the roads will be in rough shape, especially in the winter.

It might be enough to leave you spinning your wheels.

But Michigan roads haven’t had a funding boost since 1997.

And in a few years more, the state will kiss a lot of its U.S. Department of Transportation grant money goodbye.

Bob Struck says unless something is done, Michigan won’t have enough money in its own coffers to match federal grants that it receives.

He estimates the losses at nearly a billion federal dollars a year.

Struck is on the Marquette County Board.

He says the state legislature has been under-funding the road system since the 1960s.

And the situation is about to reach a tipping point, where county road commissions will no longer be able to do what most of us expect them to do.

Struck says they’ll be wanting for money to plow the winter snow, and no matter how much we want them plowed adequately, it won’t be done because the money to do it won’t be there.

He predicts the funding situation will cause significant problems.

The Marquette County Road Commission has nearly reached that point already.

Their engineer and manager says they’ll see those significant problems in less than 2 years.

Jim Iwanicki says sometime in 2011, if the funding situation doesn’t change, the Road Commission will have no choice but to cut back on the level of service it provides.

At that point, their cash reserves will be gone.

And they’ll probably have to resort to layoffs, putting the squeeze on an already-difficult staffing situation.

Back in 2001, it had 106 full-time employees.

Today, it has 51, fewer than half as many.

They haven’t made any layoffs yet — all those losses have come through attrition.

Iwanicki says they’ve needed those job losses in order to stay afloat.

At the current funding level, the Road Commission has a $10 million dollar budget to work with each year.

$2 million of that is required to cover maintenance on the state road system in the county — routes like M-35, M-28 and M-553.

That leaves $8 million to work with.

Iwanicki says it costs $200,000 to pave a mile of road with 2-inch blacktop.

That means, if the Road Commission did nothing but pave, they could still only do 40 miles in a year.

That’s about as much as they used to pave in the ’70s.

But, of course, the Road Commission can’t just pave.

They have to have funds for crews to snowplow and patch potholes.

And that also doesn’t cover the equipment and materials those crews need to do their jobs.

Those construction and materials costs have been rising consistently through the decade without funding keeping pace.

Iwanicki says if the funding situation erodes any further, the Road Commission will have to do something drastic.

But local communities are just as close to needing some drastic measures of their own.

And I’ll have a look at one of them Tuesday night in Part 2 of ‘A Bump in the Road’.