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I read the news today, oh boy — 3,000 holes in Lansing, Michigan.
The city filled about 3,200 potholes in 2017 and 2018, according to the Public Service Department’s mesmerizing new on-line pothole map.
The repairs, and the map, are part of Mayor Andy Schor’s troop-surge-style push to fix the capital city’s crumbling roads.
The worst stretches of major roads all over the city, from Pine and Seymour streets downtown to Kalamazoo Street on the east side and Pennsylvania Avenue on the south side, have been reconstructed or capped, depending on how badly they have deteriorated.
More major fixes, including Jolly Road on the south side, are in the works.
Schor’s two-pronged strategy is to leverage all available funds, from the local to the federal levels, to fix as many roads as possible and make it easier for the public to see what’s being done on line.
“During the campaign, going door to door, it was the biggest issue I heard about,” Schor said. “This is a big deal for me, a major commitment. I want folks to have the information they’ve been asking for.”
The mayor surmised that citizens were unlikely to comb the minutes of Public Service Advisory Board meetings to find out what roads the city planned to fix.
Public Service Director Andy Kilpatrick and his staff developed an on-line map that shows what roads have been fixed in recent years, complete with blue dots marking the location of thousands of repaired potholes.
Money for the repairs comes from a lasagna of local, state and federal sources, with extra sauce from the state in 2017 and 2018.
“We’re at the point where the roads should be getting a little better instead of getting worse, but we still need $20 million a year for 10 years to get them into good shape and concentrate on maintenance,” Kilpatrick said.
Kilpatrick said the city is about “halfway there” now, with $9 to $12 million in annual road funding through 2020.
The money comes from several sources. In addition to the $5 million Lansing receives annually for roads from the state budget, the Legislature allocated part of this state’s budget surplus to Lansing, giving the city a “shot in the arm” of $900,000 for roads in 2017, with another $1.5 million bonus coming in October 2018, Kilpatrick said.
At the local level, this year, the city is using its entire road millage of $2.1 million for road projects and not for “other road-related activities,” Schor said.
For the first time in four years, part of the city’s general fund has also been allocated to road repair: $400,000 in 2018, along with $300,000 for sidewalks. Federal money for ADA ramps helps get some of the sidewalks fixed.
“It’s not a lot of money in terms of reconstructing roads, but it fixes a lot of potholes,” Schor said.
Schor said. (A mile of road can cost up to half a million dollars to reconstruct.)
Finally, another $2 million to $4 million for roads will come from Combined Sewer Overflow work being done in Lansing, an ongoing project that involves rebuilding roads wherever storm and sewage systems are separated.
But Kilpatrick said that leaves a shortfall of just under $10 million still between existing funding and what’s needed to get the roads in good shape.
“Is it what we need? No,” Schor said. Kilpatrick said it would take $20 million a year for 10 years to get Lansing’s roads from an average of 4 to an 8 on the PASER rating scale, where 9-10 is “excellent,” 1-2 is “failing,” and 3-4 is “poor.”
Unless the federal government jumps into the mix with an infrastructure bill or some other form of help, Schor doesn’t see any other source of funding in the pipeline. He ruled out another city millage.
“We are maxed out,” he said. “We are at 19 and a half mils out of the 20 we are constitutionally allowed to levy.”
Schor said he’s grateful for the state surplus money, but he still thinks the state’s formula for road fund allocation is the reverse of what is should be. The state distributes 34 percent to MDOT, 34 percent to county roads and 21 percent to cities and villages.
“Look at the road conditions, it’s flipped,” Schor said. “Cities and villages have the worst roads, county roads are in the middle, and state roads are the pretty good.”
That means the existing funding will have to be used judiciously.
Kilpatrick said there’s an “art and a science” to deciding which roads to patch, which to repair and which to rebuild.
Asphalt is what people see, but the gravel and sand base bears most of the load. The asphalt overlay is there mainly to keep moisture off the base.
“If the base under the road hasn’t failed yet, we can just take the asphalt off, maybe do some spot repairs,” Kilpatrick said. “What you don’t want to do is wait until the road has to be completely reconstructed, because that is the most cost-inefficient way.”
Schor said work is prioritized according to traffic volume, road condition and comments received at the mayor’s office. He’s also trying to spread the work around areas of the city so that no single part of town is favored.
Often, it’s a long-term chess game, coordinated with utility, water and gas main upgrades that punch holes in roads. The Pine Street fix was long overdue, but the city waited for Consumers Energy to do utility work in 2017 before reconstructing the road this summer.
“You don’t want to tear up the same stretch of road twice,” Kilpatrick said.
The city uses both in-house equipment and contractors. Recently, a vendor tried to sell Schor a half-million-dollar road-making juggernaut, but the mayor deemed it too costly.
Road making hasn’t changed much over the years. The Pine Street rebuild exposed bricks from a century and a half ago, but asphalt has been around nearly as long.
“It’s old technology,” Kilpatrick said.
“Things haven’t changed much over time.”
However, a short stretch of Mount Hope Road on the city’s east side will be paved with experimental asphalt made, in part, of recycled tires, thanks to a pilot grant from the state.
“If anybody has any ideas on how to do it better, we’re listening,” Schor said.