Association calls for more county roads investment


The Kent County Road Commission is responsible for roughly 2,000 road miles, of which 670 are high-volume primary roads and approximately 1,300 are local roads, which are in the jurisdiction of their respective townships. Courtesy iStock

The County Road Association (CRA) of Michigan claims another $1.84 billion in annual investment is needed for the state’s county-run road and bridge network.

The CRA recently released its 2021 Michigan County Road Investment Plan, developed to give a comprehensive overview of the financial needs and investment necessary to maintain and restore Michigan’s county road and bridge network.

Michigan has the nation’s fourth-largest local road system, and county road agencies are responsible for 75% of road miles and 52% of the bridges. The Michigan Department of Transportation has 8% of the road miles and 42% of the bridges, and cities and villages have 17% of the roads and 6% of the bridges.

The investment plan examined the financial needs of maintenance and capital investment on 90,000 miles of federal aid-eligible and nonfederal aid-eligible roads; more than 5,700 bridges; as well as the buildings, facilities and equipment that are critical components to running an efficient county road agency. It is CRA’s second investment study conducted since 1985, when the state discontinued its Michigan Highway Needs Study. CRA’s first report was in 2019, and the association expects to update the report regularly in the future.

A licensed professional engineering consultant was engaged to perform the study for CRA during the first quarter of 2021, with assistance from a team of CRA member counties representing the Baraga, Barry, Kent and Oakland road commissions.

The statewide target investment for the state’s county networks now stands at $3.63 billion annually, a marginal increase from 2019’s $3.58 billion figure despite two years of inflation. Of the current $3.63 billion total, $1.73 billion was directed to county roads in FY 2019, according to Public Act 51 reports. This means a $1.84 billion additional annual investment is needed now to achieve county road goals. This is down from 2019’s $2.05 billion additional figure — reflecting modest gains on the system through FY 2019 due to new road funding.

“When our work group gathered to review the plan, we were pleased its findings show that the 2015 Transportation Package has had a positive effect on slowing the rapid decline in the condition of Michigan county roads,” said Denise Donohue, CRA director. “The additional dollars on primary and local roads that county road agencies began receiving in 2017 are making a difference with improved paved surface condition ratings being reported. It appears this is a result of treatments applied that are extending the service life of the road system and optimizing the investment on the roads.”

“While that news is quite positive, it’s also very clear that the state of Michigan must find its way to another $1.8 billion to maintain the county road and bridge network,” Donohue added. “As we move quickly toward the end of the 2021 fiscal year, counties have seen the least significant increases in road funding from the 2015 package. Only inflationary increases are in the future until our Lansing leadership can craft a plan for Phase II of road funding.”

The Kent County Road Commission is responsible for roughly 2,000 road miles. Of those, about 670 miles are primary roads marked by a high volume of traffic, and around 1,300 are local roads, which are in the jurisdiction of their respective townships.

“There’s quite a variety out there, so when we talk about how we fund roads and make improvements, there’s a difference between what we do with the primary roads and what we do on the local roads,” said KCRC Managing Director Steve Warren.

With respect to local roads, for example, KCRC matches every dollar the townships invest in their own improvements.

CRA established the same condition goal for paved county roads as the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is utilizing:

90% good/fair on federal aid-eligible roads by 2031

These roads (31,000 miles) currently have an average rating of 52% good/fair across all counties. Average was 45% in the 2019 Investment Plan.

60% good/fair on local, nonfederal aid-eligible roads by 2031

These roads (23,000 miles) currently have an average rating of 46% good/fair across all counties. Average rating was 36% in 2019.

According to the KCRC’s Long Range Plan, 56% of local roads were rated good/fair, and 67% of primary roads rated good/fair as of 2015.

Warren said KCRC is on track to achieve 90% good/fair condition for all of its primary roads by 2025, but Warren added the caveat that those designations only represent the surface conditions of these roads.

“Our objective has been to get the surface in good/fair condition, because that’s important to the motorists,” Warren said. “But underneath that roadway, many times the foundation needs to be increased or reconstructed … we don’t have the budget available to us to do as much construction as we want to do or need to do. We have about 115 miles around Kent County that need reconstruction, and we’re only doing about 10 miles per year.”

With more state funding, KCRC could easily put more work into preserving more road miles and even bump surface condition quality up to 95-100% good/fair condition by 2025.

“We set the target at 90% because we knew that’s what we could do,” he said.

The CRA report studied six areas of need by county road agencies: bridges, buildings/maintenance facilities, maintenance work, equipment, federal aid-eligible roads and nonfederal aid-eligible roads. The biggest improvements in condition showed up in the federal aid- and nonfederal aid-eligible roads. Costs were up slightly for buildings, equipment and maintenance. Bridge costs were up, due largely to improved methodology by the consultant.

Counties’ 36,500 miles of unpaved roads are not included in the report’s ratings. However, the investment plan does include the cost of adding aggregate and grading.

Kent County has about 335 miles of unpaved local roads, and Warren said it’s difficult to come up with a rating, because so much of the work to keep those gravel roads maintained is dependent on weather.

“You could go out there and put a dust cover on it and then have a rain come and all that work gets washed away,” he said.

After the 2015 Transportation Package was passed, Warren said, Kent County made a commitment to take 25 cents of every additional dollar and put it into routine maintenance, including sealing cracks in roads, keeping brush clear of signs and signals, and digging more ditches and drainage.

“You can’t maintain good roads unless you do the proper routine maintenance,” Warren said. “While we all like to see new pavement and edge-to-edge road improvement, we can’t forget about the work that needs to be done off the road.”

The CRA investment plan addresses only funds needed to preserve and restore the current system and does not contemplate system improvements (e.g., additional lanes, roundabouts or paving gravel roads).

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