The 13 Watchdog team obtained internal Michigan Department of Transportation e-mails through the Freedom of Information Act that seem to show a much larger concrete problem across the state of Michigan.
The investigation we've done throughout 2016 found roads built in the late 1990's and early 2000's are suffering, in part, from problems with chemicals used during that era. It's clear multiple issues in concrete poured during that era are contributing to wearing down relatively new roads, costing today's taxpayers millions of dollars.
The 13 Watchdog team asked MDOT's leaders on April 28, 2016, for "a list of roads in the state that you think could be damaged early in their life cycles."
On May 5, 2016, we received a list from Grand Region spokesperson John Richard showing 30 miles of five highways with problems. Richard indicated in that e-mail: "The attached list represents concrete projects with either known early joint distress or ones that may be showing symptoms of early joint distress similar to what is being observed on M-6."
This summer, through the Freedom of Information Act, we obtained internal e-mails that showed another list of potential problem roads that was generated that we did not initially receive. One day after our request on April 28, 2016, MDOT Pavement Operations Engineer Curtis Bleech Operations Engineer put together a list named "PRELIMINARY Joint Distressed Pavements" of 160 miles of road on 24 sections of highway.
The e-mail from Bleech had a similar explanation why the list was created: "The attached is a list representing concrete projects with either known early joint distress or ones that may be showing symptoms of early joint distress."
We asked MDOT leaders to clarify the different lists. Richard told us the longer list was assembled from a “windshield survey” of roads that were showing some distress. The smaller list Richard said represents roads that have been tested for problems similar to that of what's happening on M-6.
Focusing on the larger list, there are potential problems on nearly every major highway in the state of Michigan. Three of the questionable sections are on U.S. 131 in West Michigan from West River Drive to 17 Mile Road. There is also a 3-mile section of I-96 from Thornapple River Drive to west of Whitneyville Avenue listed.
There are several sections of M-6 on the list including a significant problem spot from Wilson Avenue near Wyoming to the junction of M-6 and I-196 near Hudsonville. That highway has been the focus of our investigation because it was constructed in 2004. Concrete roads in Michigan are generally supposed to last 25-30 years before major rehabilitation.
Other potential problem spots identified in the longer list in Michigan:
•M-5 (Metro Region)
•I-75 (Metro Region)
•I-96 (Metro Region)
•I-94 (Southwest Region)
•I-69 (University Region)
•M-14 (University Region)
•I-69 (Southwest Region)
•M-63 (Southwest Region)
•I-75 (Bay Region)
•M-85 (Metro Region)
•US-23 (University Region)
Internal e-mails from MDOT show the potential causes of the problems on M-6 and, possibly, others on the list. Richard in an e-mail to a concerned driver 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."
MDOT's concrete expert John Staton said during our investigation he was disappointed to see the early decay.
"I am a member of the motoring public and you are too and everyone else is and (MDOT) is not happy about it (the concrete problem)," Staton said.
Despite the concerns, MDOT officials have been critical of the 13 Watchdog team's' reporting because they feel the state's Department of Transportation is being singled out. MDOT leaders indicated to us the problems on M-6 and other roads in Michigan are no different than problems in at least eight other U.S. states in northern climates.
Ultimately, though, taxpayers in Michigan are paying for earlier than expected fixes. One internal e-mail we obtained indicates taxpayers are paying at least $7 million more than expected to reconstruct the worst part of M-6 in 2018.
US-131 from 10 Mile Road to 17 Mile road was paved in 2000. It will now have to be re-done at a cost of approximately $45 million over the next two years. The northern half will be reconstructed in 2017 (14 Mile to 17 Mile) and then the southern half, 10 Mile to 14 Mile, will be done in 2018.
Overall, in our investigation, we did not get the total price tag to fix all the roads on the larger list that need to be repaired. The assumption is the cost would be in the hundreds of millions if MDOT chooses to do full repairs.
MDOT's leaders and experts in the concrete industry have studied this issue for many years and say they are confident that roads being built today will perform better in the future.
Dr. Peter Taylor is the director of the National Concrete Pavement Technology Center at Iowa State University and says a number of solutions have been developed in a study done over the last eight years. The study was funded by the 8 northern U.S. states, including Michigan, at a cost of more than $1 million. Dr. Taylor assured us that MDOT has better specifications for its concrete now then it did in the late 1990's and early 2000's.
"In my mind Michigan's been one of the states leading the charge to say we've got a problem and how are we going to get ahead of it," Dr. Taylor said. "We believe the risk of this thing happening again is a lot lower."