The contractor responsible for pouring failing concrete on several major roads in West Michigan is talking to the 13 Watchdog team for the first time about the situation.
Leaders from Ajax Paving, one of the top paving companies across the state, tell us they thought they were doing good work when they poured M-6 in southwest Kent County and eastern Ottawa County back in 2004.
"Of course we thought we were doing the right thing," Michigan Ajax Paving President Mark Johnston said.
M-6 is now in terrible shape from Wilson Avenue near Wyoming to the junction of M-6 and I-196 east of Hudsonville. Workers from the Kent County Road Commission have been out on the road multiple times over the past six months patching broken joints to try to keep the road driveable until it's redone in 2018.
Concrete roads are expected to live at least 25-30 years before any major rehabilitation happens. An internal e-mail we obtained from MDOT indicates taxpayers are paying at least $7 million more than expected for early reconstruction of the portion of M-6 in question.
MDOT did have a warranty with Ajax Paving for M-6 but it expired in 2011. While there were concerns before 2011, the severity of the damage wasn't known until the last two years. Michigan is one of the few states in the country to pay for warranties on paved highways.
We also found in our investigation, M-6 is not the only highway Ajax paved that is having problems. A list we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the Michigan Department of Transportation showed there are 24 sections of Michigan highway on the watch list. Seventeen of them were done by Ajax Paving. The list indicates roads that have "either known early joint distress or ones that may be showing symptoms of early joint distress".
U.S. 131 in north Kent County is another problem spot.
Ajax Paving's web site indicates concrete work done on U.S. 131 from Ann Street in Grand Rapids to 17 Mile Road in Cedar Springs won the American Concrete Pavement Association Excellence in Concrete Pavement Gold Award.
We found that same stretch of road is now on MDOT's watch list for early decay.
In early 2016, the 13 Watchdog team attempted to reach somebody at Ajax Paving but didn't get a call back. Last week we traveled over to the company's headquarters in Oakland County and from that visit, we received a return call.
Johnston admitted in the phone conversation the work they've done in spots around the state hasn't turned out well.
"Nobody's proud of a bad job ever," Johnston said.
Johnston and several others who have knowledge about the M-6 project, told us during the conference call that they agreed with MDOT's findings that multiple issues caused the early decay.
MDOT Grand Region spokesperson John Richard laid out why M-6 failed in an e-mail we obtained that was sent to a concerned driver.
Richard wrote: "There are many factors that can contribute to pavement durability, including weather, the concrete mix, drainage, deicers, and salt. We believe that stretch of M-6 is a result of an imperfect synthetic mix during the transition. This is an issue in Midwestern states that have a freeze-thaw cycle."
Ajax's leaders told us the road fell apart because of circumstances outside of their control. They contend they simply followed the state's specifications at the time the work was done.
Johnston acknowledged criticism of his company and pointed out that the company has paved many good roads across the state over the last two decades.
"Of course you are upset it doesn't last but unfortunately we know stuff happens beyond our control," Johnston said. "It's nothing MDOT or the contractor did on purpose."
Johnston said he was pleased with changes MDOT has made in testing procedures to ensure taxpayers don't pay to pave one road for the price of two. The company typically does 4-8 major concrete projects a year for the state of Michigan.