Roads Bridges In Disrepair

    LANSING — A report released last month by a national transportation research group cited the condition of interstate highways in Michigan as among the worst in the country — fifth-worst to be exact.

    The report also noted that the state’s bridges on those highways were in even shoddier shape, ranking as the worst in the country.

    At the same time, a Congressional Quarterly (CQ) report expects President George W. Bush will push for about 20 percent less in highway funding from the 2002 figure for fiscal 2004. CQ also said the administration and Congress hadn’t resolved their squabbles yet on this year’s spending for roads and bridges.

    The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington, D.C. group, found that Michigan had the fifth-highest percentage of interstate-pavement miles in poor condition. The state has 1,239 miles of interstate pavement and TRIP said 166 miles were in need of repair, meaning 13 percent were listed as being poor.

    Delaware, Arkansas, New Jersey and California scored worse than Michigan. The study had Delaware and Arkansas sharing the top spot with 28 percent in poor condition.

    But TRIP said the top worst spot for needed bridge work belonged solely to Michigan. The state has 1,186 bridges on interstate highways and the report claimed 246 bridges, or 21 percent, were structurally deficient.

    “This TRIP report confirms that even though we’ve made progress in recent years, road and bridge improvements are still sorely needed in the state,” said Gary Naeyaert, director of government and public relations for the Michigan Road Builders Association (MRBA).

    TRIP used state-by-state Federal Highway Administration data from 1996-2001 to arrive at its conclusions. The research group felt additional travelers were congesting the interstates more, and the extra vehicles were eroding the system’s safety and economic benefits.

    MRBA pointed out that while increased federal funding has improved interstate roads and bridges in the state, those higher amounts haven’t been sufficient to handle the increased travel and resulting congestion on the highways.

    A report filed late last month by CQ said that Bush planned to propose $25 billion on interstate spending for FY04, or nearly $7 billion less than was spent two fiscal years ago.

    The president proposed $23.2 billion for FY03, down from the $31.8 billion that was appropriated in FY02. Bush said the cut was needed because revenues, including the gas tax, had fallen and consequently federal law required the cut. The House wanted to spend $27.7 billion this fiscal year, while the Senate went further with $31.8 billion.

    The debate, however, seems to be on the House and Senate versions and a vote could come this week. MRBA reported that the state would lose $82 million in highway funds if the House bill emerges. The difference between the two bills is 3,900 jobs.

    But for more to be spent than Bush has budgeted, lawmakers might have to increase the federal gas tax, something they may not be willing to do with a possible war looming over the oil fields of Iraq. The tax stands at 18.4 cents a gallon.

    A study from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) showed that the present level of highway spending would have to rise by 42 percent just to maintain the current condition of roads and bridges and keep congestion from getting worse, and needed to be doubled to make any significant improvements.

    “The Michigan Department of Transportation does a good job with the limited resources they are provided. Our state and local road agencies just don’t have enough funding to make the needed repairs, and it’s the motorists who suffer as a result,” said Naeyaert.

    Before he left office, Gov. John Engler signed into law a budget bill that provides $3.1 billion for road, bridge and transportation projects during FY03. But Engler also vetoed $24 million of federal funds that was redirected to bridge work, a move that left $6 million in the kitty to repair bridges in the state.

    “I believe Michigan must expend its federal-aid bridge funds where they will have the most benefit for motorists — on the high-level state trunkline system,” said Engler last fall.

    Michigan is still a “donor” state when it comes to getting federal road money, meaning it sends more gas-tax dollars to the nation’s capital than it receives in appropriations. MRBA said the state ranks 47th on the nationwide rate-of-return chart, a standing the road builders hope will change this year.

    “With reauthorization of the federal highway bill, TEA-21, slated for 2003, now is the time to aggressively pursue our goal of bringing back more of our fair share,” said Naeyaert.

    TRIP felt it would take an annual budget of $125 billion to improve the interstate system, reduce congestion and make travel safer. The group said that Congress has several options available to come up with more money for transportation, including:

    • Raising the federal gas tax.
    • Indexing the gas tax to inflation for automatic increases.
    • Reimbursing the Federal Highway Trust Fund for the revenue lost from a 5.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax exemption for gasohol.
    • Drawing down the trust’s reserve.
    • Capturing the earned interest on the trust fund, which now goes to the general fund.

    Engler said 14,500 miles of state roads and nearly 1,900 bridges were improved during his dozen years in office. But like the MRBA, he also called for a change in how federal highway dollars are handed out.

    “Equity and fairness in the motor-fuel tax rates shouldn’t be delayed any longer. It is critical that we move forward,” said Engler. “These funds are imperative for much-needed improvements on Michigan’s most heavily traveled roads.”           

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