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Pothole season starting bad, expected to worsen

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

A snowy winter mixed with a few recent warmer days could make for a particularly nasty pothole season in Michigan.

A Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson says more people seem to be calling the state’s pipeline hotline this year. So far, more than 500 people have reported problems on roads across the state using the hotline.

“So far it is what I would consider a worse year than usual,” said Bill Bantom, director of Wayne County’s road maintenance division. “Not from the perspective that we’re seeing more potholes, but ... we’re seeing bigger potholes that are causing more damage.”

Bantom says road crews “patch” 3,000 to 5,000 potholes in Wayne County each day.

“And unfortunately, because there’s so many roads in such terrible condition, that’s just a dent. And it’s not even a major dent in the overall scheme of what we’re facing on our roadways. But we’re out there,” Bantom said.

Washtenaw County Road Commission spokesperson Emily Kizer says it’s expected to be a worse-than-usual pothole season precisely because of wild swings in temperatures, and plenty of moisture on the roads. Beginning February 19, Washtenaw and other counties began seasonal weight restrictions, primarily affecting heavy trucks, to try to reduce the wear and tear on county roads this time of year.

In the course of a day, temperatures might start below freezing, then warm up, allowing snow and ice on the roads to melt. When it freezes again at night or on colder days, the expanding water puts stress on roads, and creates perfect pothole conditions.

State funding for infrastructure projects will continue to rise through 2021, and Governor Rick Snyder is hoping to allocate more money for roads with this year’s state budget. But, in December of 2016, Snyder’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, reported Michigan should be spending $4 billion annually on infrastructure projects (including water system and power grid projects, as well as roads).  

“I’m not sure any infrastructure person would ever say there’s enough money in Michigan to try to keep our infrastructure up to snuff, because Michigan has historically under-invested in its infrastructure for years and years and years,” Kizer said.

Recently, MDOT started emergency repairs on a stretches of busy highways that were literally crumbling from age and overuse. Crews are in the process of repairing stretches of I-696 and I-75 in Macomb and Oakland counties, and I-696 is slated for a $110 million reconstruction project to begin in April.

“That pavement is crumbling because of Michigan’s decades-long under-investment in infrastructure. The MDOT has no choice but to stretch that out as long as they can and they’ve been doing that, now it’s going to get a major rebuild this summer,” said MDOT spokesperson Jeff Cranson.

Even with the added funding continuing to phase-in, Cranson says it’s enough to just stave off some of the degradation. He says it’s inevitable that some roads will continue to crumble. Repairs will only get more costly the longer Michigan goes without a long-term solution for much-needed road maintenance and reconstruction.

“Every year you don’t invest, things get worse. It’s like the roof on your house. The longer you let it go, the worse it is going to be. We as a state have to decide what kind of state we want to be.”

About calls to the state pothole hotline, Cranson says many of those calls are complaints about local or county roads, and are re-directed to the appropriate local agencies. He says some people calling to complain about potholes, but some of the complaints are from drivers dealing with aging roads that are starting to fall apart. 

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Radio, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
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