May 7 2014 12:00 AM

City of Lansing estimates $166 million price tag to fix bad roads

Diane Cooke’s Pontiac G6 took a beating from fallen trees during this winter’s ice storms. But nothing prepared her for the destruction that the spring roads would bring to bear on her car. In a three-week time frame, she had to replace all four tires, plus her spare tire. She also had to replace two rims. The reason? The pothole-riddled streets in Lansing. It cost her over $1,000 to fix her car.

Based on data presented to City Council last week, Cooke is unlikely to be alone in feeling the bite of bad roads. During a budget presentation, Chad Gamble who oversees the public services department, presented evidence that 61 percent of the roads in the city’s neighborhoods were in poor condition, while just over 50 percent of the city’s main roads were in poor condition.

The conditions are established under the Pavement Surface Evaluation Rating System developed by the University of Wisconsin Madison. It assigns a rating of 1 to 10 to each road based on the observable needs of the road for repair. One is the worst, while 10 is the best.

To fix just the poor-condition roads in the city’s neighborhoods will cost $166 million, Gamble told City Pulse in an interview. To restore every road in the city to “nearly new condition” it cost will more than a quarter of a billion dollars.

Lansing is struggling to find the cash to pay for roads. The answer revolves around an antiquated funding system. The state charges a flat tax on gasoline. The funds raised on that tax are placed in a special road fund called an Act 151 that can only be used for road work. That tax has not been raised since Gov. John Engler was in office in 1997. At the time the tax was increased, the average gallon of gasoline was running about $1.25 in Michigan. Today, despite average gas prices hanging in over $3 a gallon, consumers still pay the same amount of money in taxes on a gallon of gasoline as they did in 1997.

Complicating this, people are driving fewer miles, with more gas-efficient vehicles, so they are actually buying less gasoline, resulting in even lower tax revenues.

On top of this, in order to conduct utility work — replacing water mains and the like— utilities have to cut into the roadway. The result is a “wound” in the road which takes a lot of attention and nursing from the city to heal, Gamble says. Right now, utilities pay a per square foot cost to cut into the roadway. The costs proposed for the next budget year would be $90 a square foot for pristine condition main roads and $46.5 for neighborhood roads. Lower grade roads would see fees of $30 per square foot on main roads, and $15.5 for neighborhood roads. Those fees, Gamble says, allows the city to return to cut-out locations multiple times to conduct upkeep and prevent the location from causing increased damage to the roadway.

Those wounds are visible throughout Lansing. Anywhere the Board of Water and Light has done a lead line replacement, one can see large square patches of asphalt where the work that was done is sinking and cracking.

Things in the city could be much worse. In 2011, voters approved a special 4 mill tax levy to pay for public safety and road upkeep.

“Without the millage, we wouldn’t have been able to function,” Gamble said. “We would be on life support.”

Gamble points out the millage is really only a stop gap response, with the real answer to be found in the state legislature. He is not hopeful lawmakers will find a resolution anytime soon.

“It boggles my mind. I understand they don’t want to raise taxes wily nilly, but this is guaranteed to go into one fund,” Gamble says.

He points to the catastrophic failure of the I-35 bridge in 2007 in Minnesota. The collapse was, in part, due to poor upkeep. The failure resulted in the deaths of 13 people.

“I hope it doesn’t take something like that to get them to act,” says Gamble of the legislature.

And Gamble feels Cooke’s pain. His family had to replace the windshield in their van recently because a piece of road flew off the highway and cracked it. The cost? About $300.

“They may not know it, but they are paying for the conditions of the roads,” Gamble says of taxpayers. “One way or another, they are paying for it.”