Taken for a ride

Sep 22, 1999 at 12:00 am

In 1997, Gov. John Engler looked across the paved portion of Michigan’s landscape and didn’t like what he saw: maddened motorists on pothole-pocked roads. So he called for and got a hike in the state’s gasoline tax and other fees that delivered an additional $300 million a year for road repair. Then in 1998, more good news arrived as the state gained a $310 million annual boost in federal transportation funding.

At the governor’s direction, the Michigan Department of Transportation pledged to direct the funding windfall to bring 90 percent of state highways to "good" condition by 2007.

Southeast Michigan drivers in particular must have rejoiced because they travel the most punishing roads in the United States, according to a national study.

An analysis by the Michigan Land Use Institute, however, reveals a different set of priorities. While promoting its maintenance program, MDOT is underreporting the cost of its new road-building plans by more than one-third. Over the next five years, the department intends to spend $700 million on new roads and another $950 million to widen existing ones. Meanwhile, it has weakened its road-repair program and is studying plans to build new highways that would cost $2 billion more.

"The state routinely ought to maintain its roads to a very high standard before it ever considers major expansions," said Tom Leonard, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council in Grand Rapids. "If they cannot adequately maintain what we have now, how can we expect them to maintain the miles and miles of new pavement they’re proposing?"

False advertising

Released last February, MDOT’s marquee communications tool is a guide entitled Five Year Road & Bridge Program, 1999 to 2003. The document details the agency’s plans to maintain, widen, and build new roads on the state-maintained highway system (those roads with an "M-", "US-" or "I-" designation). The plan’s publication and time frame coincide with the new federal transportation law, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. TEA-21 increases Michigan’s federal transportation funding by 61 percent compared with the previous 1991 law.

MDOT’s five-year plan catalogues how it will spend the federal money, along with state funds generated by the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees. The report begins by saying "only 8 percent of the state’s budget will be invested in new road construction during this time period." A corresponding chart shows that 8 percent translates to $510 million slated for new roads.

What’s also budgeted, however, is about $190 million in TEA-21 funds obtained for projects by Michigan’s congressional delegation. Nearly all that funding also will result in new roads, according to MDOT director of communications Gary Naeyaert. Combining the two figures shows that the agency is understating its road-building program by more than 36 percent.

Why misrepresent the new roads budget, the item perhaps most publicized by the transportation department? MDOT says it’s a service to Michigan’s federal lawmakers who secured the funds. "Our members of Congress like to see that figure separated out," Naeyaert said of the TEA-21 funds. "We don’t have any problem with you doing that math."

But a growing number of people who are looking at the math say the state’s approach doesn’t add up to sound fiscal policy.

"The MDOT investment program is too much in the wrong place — new roads — and too much in the wrong mode — focusing on moving cars and not people," said Jim Bush, a member of the transportation advisory committee at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments in metropolitan Detroit. Bush is also a member of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

MDOT’s new-roads agenda presents a particularly dire scenario for Detroit, where 32 percent of households have no motor vehicles, and for southeast Michigan as a whole, which has the nation’s roughest roads. Detroit-Ann Arbor regional drivers pay the most in the entire country to repair road-inflicted damage to their cars: $1,416 each in lifetime repairs, according to a 1998 study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. That translates to a combined car repair cost of $210 million a year to southeast Michigan motorists; the rest of the state’s car owners shell out nearly $100 million more per year.

More to come

If the state transportation department’s $700 million road-building budget leaves many vehicles battered and many roads unrepaired, the five-year plan indicates residents should expect much more of the same. The guide outlines research for more than $2 billion in new roads, mostly in northern and western Lower Michigan:

· US-23 rerouting. The $800 million project would reroute and widen 100 miles of US-23 between Standish and Alpena on the state’s northeast side. The proposal made this year’s list of the 10 most wasteful and environmentally harmful road projects nationwide, as selected by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Friends of the Earth.

· US-131 rerouting. The $500 million proposal would reroute and widen the rural highway starting near Cadillac and extending north to a proposed I-75 connector.

· US-31 bypass. The $315 million project would create a new, 27-mile route for US-31 between Grand Haven and Holland. Another $270 million would be spent to widen to six lanes the portion of US-31 being bypassed.

· Traverse City bypass. The $300 million bypass would loop for 33 miles around Traverse City, linking with US-31 at both ends.

· Petoskey Bypass. The $70 million bypass would reroute US-31 through rural townships south and east of Petoskey in northern Michigan.

"We don’t fund every road we study," says MDOT’s Naeyaert. History shows, however, that only the federal government’s refusal to provide funding or years of citizen opposition actually stops state road projects.

New road building is not the only way the state transportation department plows ahead with expanding a system that it poorly maintains. MDOT’s five-year plan directs nearly $900 million to "capacity improvements," which include road widenings and new interchanges, and some related road reconstruction. In addition to its five-year plan, the agency also is considering a $1.3 billion project to widen and rebuild a seven-mile stretch of I-94 and reconstruct four miles of interchanges in Wayne County.

Changing definitions

Rather than promote its new-and-wider-roads vision for Michigan’s future, MDOT instead has marketed the road-repair goal set in 1997 by Gov. Engler.

While that goal was vague in the beginning, MDOT recently made it even more hazy, but without the fanfare that accompanied the original announcement.

Before the release of MDOT’s five-year plan, the target had been to bring 90 percent of state roads into "good or fair" condition. Now, the plan calls for 90 percent of roads to be simply in "good" condition. At first, this sounds like an upgrade. But the goal has not changed; it’s just the description that sounds better.

Naeyaert said the difference between "good" and "fair" roads is primarily the number of years the pavement will last, which is not easily detected by its appearance. So, he added, MDOT simplified the description to avoid confusing the public.

Will most of the roads classified in the new, broader category of "good" actually be "fair" roads that soon will need fresh repairs and more money? MDOT isn’t saying.

Taking control

Ann Arbor's high-tech transit alternative

by Conan Smith

Standing in the control room overlooking the bustling staging area of the Ann Arbor Transit Authority, executive director Greg Cook looks a lot like a military commander. In a modern setting that resembles a NASA flight center, computer screens flash statistics, buses are tracked electronically, and uniformed dispatchers keep in regular radio contact with drivers.

Without question, Ann Arbor operates the most sophisticated, convenient and effective public transit system in Michigan. The state-of-the-art operation breathes life into Ann Arbor’s robust downtown by providing residents with an efficient and flexible alternative to cars.

More than 4 million passengers a year ride Ann Arbor’s 75 buses. Only transit systems in Detroit and Flint, both of which have significantly larger populations, carry more passengers, and only Lansing’s system comes close in innovation. Public transportation is regarded as such an important civic asset that in 1973 Ann Arbor residents approved an amendment to the city charter perpetually funding the system.

"One of the great things we have in Ann Arbor is technology," said Cook. "We have been able to develop a great system because we have great community support."

Unfortunately, Ann Arbor and Lansing are the rare exceptions in Michigan that provide residents with a convenient alternative to cars. In most cities transit systems are woefully underfunded or nonexistent, since residents and local leaders have been unwilling or unable to raise property taxes or secure other sources of revenue to properly finance them.

Since 1975, transit ridership statewide has fallen from 104.1 million to 86.5 million. Michigan lawmakers and transportation department officials cite the falling ridership figures to justify their decisions to consistently deny the state’s 73 transit agencies their fair share of financial support. Of the $2.8 billion available this year for transportation spending in Michigan, just $168 million is going to public transit. The result is that most transit agencies operate at the brink of ruin.

The scarcity of public transit means Michigan residents are using cars more than ever. The state’s highway-dominated transportation policy is producing ruinous sprawl, with increasing traffic congestion, rising costs for reconstruction and repair, and grave environmental problems including widespread air and water pollution.

Cook argues that increasing funding for public transit is a well-documented solution to the costly problems caused by urban sprawl. "I come from Oregon where land use planning is paramount," he said. "It’s not that way here, and it’s time we took a look at ourselves. If we want to survive, transit has got to be a top priority."

Excellent public transit systems, he noted, are a defining characteristic of the world’s greatest cities. From New York to Hong Kong, Paris to Santiago, international leaders rely on modern transit to economize, contain growth, reduce pollution and make it possible for residents of all ages to participate in civic life. In short, said Cook, if Michigan expects to be globally competitive in the next century, mass transit must become a political priority and a practical reality.