Just fix the damn roads?
Not that simple in A2
BY LYNN MONSON
Soon after I moved to Ann Arbor in 1995, I began telling my colleagues at The Ann Arbor News that my new home was an amazing “Cadillac town” that they sometimes took for granted.
As a newcomer, I was struck by the first-rate nature of most any public service or program you could name. With three kids, I quickly learned Ann Arbor had a Cadillac school system with outstanding facilities, faculty, music programs, sports and other amenities. There was a Cadillac park system, bus system, library system. The University of Michigan is a Cadillac — the Harvard of the West, don’t ya know? It’s probably poor taste to label the homeless shelter a Cadillac, but, hey, it’s the best in the Midwest. Then there’s the county social services network, top-shelf emergency response and the list went on, including, obviously, a Cadillac tax bill.
But in all my raving about our public services, I didn’t ever label the city streets as Cadillacs. They were just OK.
Twenty years later, the streets in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County deserve special mention, but not for excellence. It’s for being so bad in places that only a tire shop could be happy with the rough ride, flat tires, bent rims, misaligned wheels and wrecked suspensions.
Even as some of the worst spots have been fixed in recent months – such as the bone-jarring stretch of Ann Arbor-Saline Road on both sides of Interstate 94 – the condition of many local streets and roads remains shockingly bad by any community’s standard, but particularly for one that prides itself – or perhaps deludes itself – on being outstanding in every way.
The decline of roads is hardly news, nor is it unique to Ann Arbor. It’s been discussed throughout Michigan and the Legislature for the better part of two decades. But over the past couple of years the frequency and intensity of the complaints has risen to the level of obsession. Polls confirm that road-weary Michiganders are tired of the bumpy rides, whether it’s from their house to the grocery store or from Ann Arbor to Chicago along an I-94 that is so bad you’ll think you have a flat tire.
The Ann asked me to “find out why the roads are so bad.” That’s easy. There is no pothole, no stretch of terrible pavement, that can’t be fixed by one thing: money. Trouble is, the state road fund, fed by the tax we pay on gasoline and vehicle registration fees, isn’t keeping up. (See related story.)
As the Legislature fumbles for a solution, local residents and public officials are left to deal with bad roads that are getting worse. They don’t have enough money to do all they would like, as fast as they would like.
But they do have some money. Ann Arbor spends about $20 million on streets every year and the Washtenaw County Road Commission spends about $35 million fixing roads. Knowing millions are being spent, the motorist, bicyclist or bus rider weaving and bobbing along an inferior road is entitled to muse: “Why don’t they fix this road? Are there actually roads worse than this? When can I expect it to be fixed? How do they decide these things?”
• • •
John Kinzinger and his wife, Jane, live on the north edge of Ann Arbor on the most scenic and popular road in Washtenaw County – Huron River Drive. Given the road’s high traffic, its chamber of commerce/tourism value and its role as a favorite route for Ann Arbor’s big bicycle population, most of the river-hugging section from Ann Arbor to Hudson Mills Metropark has been kept in smooth shape. Except for a bizarre, unmaintained section that runs from Foster Road a half-mile east past the Kinzingers’ home.
One evening in late September, John Kinzinger and his next-door neighbors, Sarah Swider and Marcin Szczepanski, stood on the bumpy, patchwork quilt of asphalt patches upon asphalt patches that spread almost entirely across the two-lane road. The road has been really rough for the past two years, they say, but this spring the post-winter potholes were the worst in the 26 years the Kinzingers have lived there.
Szczepanski said he is not exaggerating when he describes craters 2 feet deep and 3 or 4 feet wide. Kinzinger placed orange traffic cones in the holes to warn of the danger. The county Road Commission filled the potholes and slathered on more patches to get the road through the spring, but the inexplicably rough section remained into the fall.
As bad as the road surface is for cars, it’s worse for bicyclists. Swider can hear them shout warnings to each other – and curse. A faculty member at Wayne State University, Swider says the roughest road she encounters on her commute to Detroit is when she leaves her driveway. Bicyclists and motorists still regularly stop to change flat tires in the couples’ front yards.
Both couples have repeatedly called Ann Arbor Township, which dutifully forwards the calls to the Road Commission, which is responsible for this stretch of Huron River Drive just outside the Ann Arbor city limits.
“This spring was the roughest (ever) beyond a doubt,” Kinzinger says. “The patching lasts maybe a week. It’s bad. I guess somebody needs to have an accident, an injury, for something to really happen. … It’s gotten to be beyond ridiculous. We just live with it.”
As do drivers all around the county and city. Huron River Drive is a microcosm of the difficulties faced by the Road Commission and Ann Arbor’s engineering and planning departments as they try to spread road-repair money as economically and fairly as possible.
Roy Townsend, director of the Road Commission, says he is well aware that this particular half-mile of Huron River Drive needs work, but it hadn’t worked its way to the top of his priority list. Then, last fall, he learned that a group of citizens was gathering private funds to present to the Road Commission, and he found matching funds for the project. It was the second time in five years that Ann Arbor businessman Ted Green has raised money, mostly from two local bicycle clubs and a triathlon group, to give to the Road Commission to fix parts of Huron River Drive.
“That was a project that was on our radar but we didn’t have any funding,” Townsend said. “Last fall, (Green) approached us, and again this spring. They collected $40,000, so that moved it up on our radar.” The Road Commission contributed about $100,000. The work was originally scheduled for September, then delayed into early October. In another example of how any particular road repair doesn’t get scheduled in a vacuum, the Huron River Drive work was timed so that it could be done by the same crews who were repaving a nearby section of Newport Road.
Townsend said he agrees with Green who, after raising $35,000 the first time, quipped that “bake sales and mini-fundraisers aren’t really the way to fix roads.”
“We’d like a more comprehensive plan,” Townsend says, and he has one in the form of a five-year Capital Improvement Plan. But he’s not going to turn down any money that would help round out his annual budget, even if the wait delays a much-needed project.
• • •
Huron River Drive illustrates another little-understood road-repair practice. The county and city use standardized pavement rating systems that label roads in varying degrees of good, fair and bad. In the old days, the worst roads got fixed first. But because really bad roads are more expensive to fix, not as many miles could fit into the budget. Modern road repair practice focuses on investing more on “fair” roads to keep them from falling into the more expensive “bad” category.
That means fair roads often get seal coats (also known as chip seals) – those layers of little rocks held down by tar, a process that costs $25,000 a mile. Or they may get the next step up, milling and resurfacing, which is $150,000 a mile. Meanwhile, bad roads may stay bad for an uncomfortably long time until funding for a major reconstruction can be secured at the hefty price tag of $300,000 a mile.
Maintaining Washtenaw County’s network of 1,600 miles of gravel and paved roads is an ever-changing target. Townsend, his staff and the three members of the Road Commission start with Michigan’s numerical road rating system called TASER as they prioritize what roads will be fixed each year (and over the five-year Capital Improvement Plan). They factor in citizen input and gather the priorities and preferences of the elected officials in the county’s 20 townships.
Dealing with townships, which contribute funds to Road Commission projects each year, adds a layer of politics to the process. For instance, if in a given year one or two townships on the south side of the county seem to have the worst roads, Townsend can’t spend all of his money there; he has to spread it around in the west, north and east parts of the county, too.
There’s a certain amount of subjectivity involved when gauging needs based on factors such as traffic counts, safety, how long a road has been in bad shape, new housing developments nearby, the severity of the most recent winter and what federal or state grants may be available for certain types of projects, such as enhancing non-motorized transportation. Often, it’s a judgment call.
Meanwhile, Townsend’s counterparts at Ann Arbor City Hall seem intent on making the city’s road repairs a strictly objective, data-driven process with, well, lots and lots of data. If Townsend sometimes turns to his 27 years of experience at the Road Commission to make a decision, Ann Arbor planners turn to “Figure 1: Capital Prioritization Ranking of Alternatives by Total Benefit Value.” There, in a beautifully color-coded if somewhat confusing chart, they will learn that “Stone School Road improvements from I-94 to Ellsworth” has a “total benefit value” of 68.65. That compares to 66.78 for “Ann Arbor-Saline Road from Eisenhower to city limits.” Those numbers are a composite of rankings for factors such as innovation, sustainability framework goals, economic development/retention, coordination with other projects, and whether it reduces energy costs or contributes to renewable energy.
• • •
Not that Townsend doesn’t use data or produce reports with great-looking charts. But Ann Arbor planners are taking data to new heights.
This year, the city hired a consulting firm to drive every street in Ann Arbor in a vehicle equipped with instruments and video to measure the condition of every foot of every street in town. It’s the first time the city has ever rated all 300 miles of road in a single year. The previous method was to send a crew on a tour of one-third of the city every summer to manually rate the street conditions.
When the report is finished later this year, staff will have a baseline of data, though they will continue to do “windshield tours” where they check the conditions of the streets for themselves.
That will help staffers reach a consensus on which projects should fit where in the six-year Capital Improvements Plan. The CIP is then approved by the Planning Commission. The City Council’s main involvement is at the end of the process when they approve the $20 million roads budget and contracts for individual projects.
A huge difference between fixing city streets and county roads is that there is almost always some combination of water, sewer, stormwater and natural gas pipes under city streets. So the question always becomes: While we’re redoing the road, should we replace the utilities? In a town where some utility lines date to the late 1800s, that can add considerable time, expense and complexity to any road project.
That’s why road projects are almost never quick and easy, says City Engineer Nick Hutchinson. Not only does the city have to plan ahead for road funding, but a project may also be eligible for matching federal or state stormwater, sanitary sewer or clean water funds, which have to be applied for well in advance. “Once you get down to that level, you have to align the stars to some degree,” he said. “The stormwater funding needs to be there and set for a certain year. … All those different funds from all the different funding sources need to be lined up and that helps drive the schedule.”
City, state and federal requirements are more demanding today than they once were, said Elizabeth Rolla, another veteran engineer and a project manager for the city. Even something as seemingly straightforward as a pedestrian crossing is now engineered differently, requiring special curb cuts and concrete work. The city’s relatively new Green Streets policy dictates how stormwater must be handled when new streets are built, while the Non-Motorized Transportation Plan calls for additions such as bike lanes whenever the city is improving a road.
Even the city’s efforts to increase transparency for citizens adds time to road projects, sometimes with multiple public information sessions where there would have been none a few years ago.
All of these factors add time and complexity to the relatively simple public battle cry these days: Just fix the damn roads.
• • •
Which brings us to the highest profile road project underway in the city. One of the main entrances to downtown Ann Arbor – the Jackson/Huron corridor from Main Street to I-94 – has been in terrible shape for six or seven years. It is one of the top gripes the city has received for years, but the city says it couldn’t do much because it is an I-94 Business Route under the control of the Michigan Department of Transportation. The city says it can only make suggestions, not demands, to MDOT.
As far back as 2009, MDOT was supposedly going to put the project in its budget, but the state agency has its own funding problems that caused delay after delay. The city finally learned that MDOT would do the Jackson/Huron project in 2013, but by then the city had already committed to a major re-do of nearby Miller Avenue. Doing both at the same time would shut off the west side of the city, so MDOT agreed to delay the Jackson/Huron project until 2014, Hutchinson said.
“It was a moving target,” he said. “We heard everything from 2009 to 2014 over the years and it was constantly moving back and forth. I don’t want to throw MDOT under the bus here, but it makes it hard for us to plan our projects.”
The Jackson/Huron work started in the spring in phases that included the removal of old trolley tracks in the block of Huron just west of Main. Buried for decades, the tracks had been working their way to the top of the pavement with help from the winter freeze-thaw cycle. In mid-September, construction crews tearing out the old road surface farther west on Jackson, near Dexter Avenue, encountered more – apparently unexpected – trolley tracks.
MDOT spokeswoman Kari Arend said in late September that the track removal has slowed progress, but it’s hoped the entire project will still be completed by the end of the construction season in late November. Several other road construction sources say that’s unlikely, which means motorists will probably spend the winter with severely limited access and several more months of driving on the same moon track they’ve been bouncing over for years.
The project typifies the complexity of fixing roads. Residents who expect quick fixes of roads are no doubt frustrated as they listen to the City Council regularly take up every issue under the sun except roads, like, say, culling the urban deer herd. Ward 3 City Council member Christopher Taylor, the presumptive next mayor of Ann Arbor, assures residents that fixing roads is important.
“I recognize absolutely, as do all of my colleagues, I believe, that the public believes roads are one of the basic, fundamental services that we need to provide,” Taylor said. “The reason why it doesn’t get as much airtime as some other issues is because it is a given. … It’s engineering and data and so consequently it doesn’t get a lot of airtime, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t profoundly important.”