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Rough roads overwhelm Mich.

State ranks 3rd highest in nation for road damage

April 5, 2004

Bent wheels, worn shocks and damaged frames are common complaints at Jerry's Automotive in Lansing this time of year.

Michigan's rough roads create 10 to 15 percent of the shop's auto repair and maintenance business, said Roger Mathews, manager of the store, located at 5544 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

"People tell me they swerved to miss one pothole and hit two others," he said.

Those stories at the shop are not uncommon - rough roads plague Michigan more than nearly any other state. A computer analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data revealed that 30 percent of the state's roads are rough. That percentage ranks third-highest among the 50 states.

Mathews said some area roads are so bad that they cause serious damage to a vehicle's frame - a problem usually only caused by collisions.

Rough-road related repairs range from $200 to more than $1,000 at Jerry's.

"It is not preventable," Mathews said. "It has become a way of life in Michigan."

Like new potholes, orange barrels are as much a rite of spring in Michigan as the robin. This year is no different, with the Michigan Department of Transportation starting projects across the state this month, including in downtown Lansing.

Starting next week, the streets surrounding the state's Capitol will be reconstructed. The project will rebuild the roads and separate rain and waste water sewers, said Kari Arend, spokeswoman for MDOT.

Michigan's roads are considerably rougher than the national average. Across the United States, 12 percent of roads are rough, according to 2002 data, the most recent available. Nearby states Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio all rank at or below the national average with 12, 7 and 5 percent of their roads being rough, respectively.

While federal transportation data shows Michigan's roads have become a tougher drive since 1999, when 25 percent of roads were rough, MDOT says it is working to fix the state's highways and byways.

A lack of federal funding, rather than a low diesel tax or high truck-weight limits, constrains the transportation department's ability to repair roads quickly, Arend said.

Michigan receives only about 90 cents of every federal transportation dollar it sends to Washington.

The state is one of 11 states that receive less funds in return than they contribute.

Snowy and icy weather are not solely to blame for bumpy roads in Michigan, said Kenneth Boyer, an MSU economics professor and transportation expert.

"In the Great Lakes states, we really are an outlier," he said. "It is hard to give a geographical explanation, so it has to be in terms of decisions made."

Politics and the strength of Michigan automotive, steel and manufacturing industries might play a greater role, he said.

Most dollars for repairs come from fuel taxes. Michigan collects 19 cents per gallon on gasoline and 15 cents per gallon on diesel. Boyer said while 19 cents on gas is about average, collecting less per gallon on diesel is rare.

By comparison, Minnesota, where only 3 percent of roads are rough, collects 20 cents per gallon for both fuels.

Michigan also has much higher gross weight limits for trucks than most other states - another potential cause of Michigan's rough roads, Boyer said.

"That has allowed trucking costs to be lower in Michigan than other states, which is clearly to the benefit of manufacturing," he said.

Michigan has taken steps to improve its roads, said Karim Chatti, MSU assistant professor and pavement expert.

He said he was surprised Michigan has among the roughest roads in the nation because its pavement preservation program is considered among the country's best.

"They try to act before things go too badly," he said. "I think that has made a significant impact."

Preservation involves taking steps to extend the life of the highway, such as a sealant, before the structure of the road breaks down. The process is intended to keep the highway network in the best possible condition within a given budget constraint. The department does much of this work with excess funds available in the fall.

Chatti said the high percentage of rough roads might be a result of Michigan focusing on road structure when determining what roads are in need of repairs, while some other states put more weight on how smoothly a road rides.

To determine the percentage of rough roads, The State News used the International Roughness Index data. Experts say on a 0 to 220 scale, roads that rate 145 or higher are considered rough.

Tom Gillespie, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, created the index. He said most Michigan road miles are comparable to miles across the country, with index ratings near 100. Michigan has more rough road miles, however, while some other states are more likely to have extremely smooth miles.

"I'm like everyone else," he said. "You bump along US-23, then you hit Ohio and they switch from concrete to asphalt and you say, 'Gee, it is smooth.'"

Eric Morath can be reached morather@msu.edu.

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