LANSING, MICH. - Didn't they just fix this road? It's a common complaint from Michigan motorists when they encounter orange barrels in a familiar location.
The Michigan Department of Transportation is now trying to find out whether it is cost-effective to build better roads that will last longer.
Most Michigan freeways are built for a 20-year life. In pilot projects this year and next, MDOT will build stretches of road expected to last 30 and 50 years, respectively.
Not only should they last longer, the experimental stretches of road built in Genesee and Kent counties are expected to provide smoother rides and require less maintenance.
But they won't come cheap.
"Can you build a longer-lasting road? Yes," MDOT Director Kirk Steudle told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation last week. "Is it free? No."
The pilot projects will be put out to bid, just like other jobs, so there's no telling with certainty how much they will cost until the prices come in. But MDOT estimates a 30-year road might cost 50% to 100% more, and a 50-year road might cost 85% to 150% more, depending on whether they are rural roads or urban roads, spokesman Jeff Cranson said Friday. Urban roads typically cost more for a variety of reasons, including complex drainage issues, more utility lines to work around, and the need to build retaining walls because of intersecting freeways, he said.
The 30-year road will have at least 36 inches of sand and gravel to resist frost, up from 24 inches in the 20-year road. More materials poured to greater depths are the major reason for the higher costs.
The few miles of road stretches built as pilot projects — two built from asphalt and two from concrete — will be intensely monitored for their performance and durability over the next several years as MDOT tries to figure out whether the extra money is well spent.
The requirement to look at longer-lasting roads emerged from the $1.2-billion road funding deal in 2015, which hiked gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, starting this year.
John Boillat, 66, who lives north of Byron near Howell and drives I-96 each day to his job repairing machines at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Livonia, said he's not happy about the tax and registration fee increases and he doesn't have high expectations about the pilot projects.
Michigan should be able to build better roads without spending more money because other states with similar climates, such as Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, are able to do it, Boillat said. He thinks the key is building elevated roads designed so the water drains off them quickly.
The pilot projects are "another cost that I don't think the taxpayer needs to have," Boillat said. "It's not like we started building roads yesterday." And which of the current politicians and highway officials will be around in 20 or 30 years to be held accountable if the pilots are not a success? he asked.
Cranson said the longer-life roads are built for ideal drainage and improved frost resistance.
"Considerations were given to the chances that Michigan could very well experience a few cycles of very extreme weather events," including "very wet and cold winters," he said. "With these colder and wetter-than-normal weather events comes the likelihood that the heavy trucks could drive the frost deeper and deeper into the roadway."
The elevation of the roadway relative to the accompanying ditches, and assuring water from the ditches can't flow back onto the roadway, is another important design consideration, he said.
MDOT itself has been skeptical about the cost-effectiveness of building longer-lasting roads, saying the main reason Michigan roads in many cases fall apart sooner than they should is because a lack of adequate funding has resulted in inadequate maintenance.
"The reality is that most of the work MDOT has done to Michigan highways in the past decade has focused on resurfacing, rather than reconstruction," the agency said in a "reality check" fact sheet posted on its website in advance of Michigan's road funding debate.
"The purpose of resurfacing is to keep good roads good, but when the underlying road is no longer in good condition, it needs to be rebuilt, not resurfaced. Dwindling transportation funding and skyrocketing costs for road repair materials mean MDOT and local road agencies can fix fewer miles of roads adequately, and those fixes, by design, will not last as long as more expensive, but longer-lasting, reconstruction."
Improved asset management is among the key recommendations of Gov. Rick Snyder's 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, which reported late last year.
As MDOT has disclosed previously, Steudle told lawmakers this week that despite the road funding deal, the condition of Michigan roads is projected to continue to deteriorate, just not as quickly as they would without the extra money. He showed lawmakers a chart that indicated about 80% of state trunk lines were in good condition in 2016. Under the road funding deal, that percentage is expected to decline to about 50% by 2021 — about a year later than it would have happened under the former road funding arrangements, according to the chart.
Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, was one of the lawmakers who pushed MDOT to look at more durable roads in return for extra road funding.
Colbeck said Friday he's glad MDOT is looking at the issue, but he's unhappy the agency appears to be just increasing the depth of the pilot project roads, instead of trying new approaches to make Michigan's roads last longer. For example, he's familiar with a product, which has an improved sealant to keep water from getting beneath the road, that's expected to cost about 15% more but produce roads that last up to four times longer, he said.
The pilot projects seem "intended to demonstrate the cost-prohibitive nature of legislator-driven long-life road designs — not demonstrate a serious attempt at reducing total life cycle costs," Colbeck said. "I want them to be more innovative."
Cranson said MDOT constantly looks at innovations, but he's not aware of any states using a product similar to what Colbeck described.
"If somebody broke the code and figured out how to do it cheaper and better, wouldn't everybody be doing it?" he asked.
This is also not the first time MDOT has tried spending more to build longer-lasting roads.
In 1993, MDOT rebuilt a 1-mile stretch of I-75 in Detroit, between East Warren and Piquette, to "European standards" for concrete pavement after sending officials to learn about highways in Germany and Austria. The road, which had thicker layers of aggregate and concrete and a partly exposed aggregate surface, among other features, cost more than twice as much as a nearby stretch built to regular MDOT standards. But 20 years later, both stretches had “relatively similar ride quality values,” and “a distinct performance trend has not yet developed for either pavement section to estimate a definitive service life expectancy,” according to an MDOT report.
Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, said building better and more costly roads could make sense in certain high-traffic urban areas, but the approach wouldn't make sense for 121,000 miles of road statewide.
Nystrom said he's skeptical of claims of roads that will last significantly longer for little additional cost. "There's always new technologies coming out — I'm not sure of the latest snake oil that's being proposed," he said.
"We can build these long-term pavements; it's just that the cost is much higher," Nystrom said. "It's not like we're going to come up with something new. We're going to do what we've been doing, we're just going to do it much better."
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Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.
(© 2017 Detroit Free Press)