Increased Road Funding the Focus of MI Conference

By Aram Kalousdian, Editor | September 28, 2010

Increased road funding was the focus of the recent County Road Association of Michigan (CRAM) Annual Highway Conference that was held in Lansing in March. Representative Phil LaJoy, minority vice chair on the Michigan House of Representatives Transportation Committee, told attendees that Michigan is facing a road funding problem.

"Unfortunately, the state of Michigan's overall structural deficit has let many people ignore one of our most pressing needs. Along with other budget problems, the fact is, Michigan is facing a road deficit as well," LaJoy said.

LaJoy said that even though 92 percent of state roads are expected to be in good condition sometime later this year, the bad news is that the state does not have the money to maintain this high mark.

Based on current financial projections, if nothing is done differently, only 68 percent of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) managed system will be in good condition by 2014.

"We're going to lose the battle. Our state system will steadily decline if we don't make it a priority to sustain it and find ways to make our road dollars go further," LaJoy said. He pointed out that county roads are facing similar challenges in the years to come.

"We need to continue to look at places where we can cut administrative costs. We must also continue our efforts to get back a greater share of money from the federal government," LaJoy said.

"But, efficiencies alone are not going to fill the funding needs. We need to find comprehensive solutions that will allow our state to maintain our freeways, roads and bridges, while expanding our infrastructure to meet future needs."

"We must look at all of the options available to us. We should get the best and brightest, and you are the best and brightest, but just like you would like us to do for you, you are going to have to take some heat with us," Representative Lee Gonzales, chair of the Michigan House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, said.

"That's the way that we can advocate for the future transportation needs for Michigan. We must be the best advocates on earth in order to do that. Let us in Michigan create a model for other states.

"The word entrepreneurship is brought up a lot in this society. Do you know what entrepreneurship was a century ago? It was the Henry Fords and others that said that our product will be the best in this state, the best in the United States and the best in the world. That's entrepreneurship and that's what we must do."

State Representative Hoon-Yung Hopgood, chair of the Michigan House Transportation Committee, said that the committee will be looking at the road funding issue.

"Hopefully we can set the stage to be able to go to Washington, D.C., in a couple of years and make a unified case for more federal road dollars," Hopgood said.

"I think we all agree that the transportation funding issue is starting to build momentum. The problem that we have is the urgency of doing something. We have a short window of time before we start getting into re-election mode. The longer we wait, the longer it takes, and it will be more likely that we will bump up against that pressure. We don't want to bump up against that pressure. We need to act quickly," Ed Noyola, deputy director of CRAM, said.

"We have a 40-percent drop in anticipated money available for the MDOT managed system over the next two years, because of the current funding system. We bonded; we pave today and pay tomorrow and now tomorrow is here," Keith Ledbetter, director of Legislative Affairs for the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association (MITA), said.

Ledbetter reported that interest payments on state borrowing for state road projects are expected to be $217 million in 2007 — almost 16 percent of the entire road and bridge budget.

Costs of materials like steel, cement and petroleum-based products have increased by an average of over 20 percent per year for the past three years. Overall state transportation revenue is expected to grow 0.8 percent in fiscal year 2007. The purchasing power of the state gasoline tax has declined by 20.5 percent since 1998.

In fiscal year 2006, gas taxes dropped by 1.8 percent and vehicle registration fees increased by only 0.5 percent. Gas tax growth has been flat or declining since 2000.

MDOT Director Kirk Steudle reported that the department is accepting applications for Local Jobs Today road construction projects until all funds are committed or May 31, whichever comes first.

Senator Ray Basham, minority vice chair on the Michigan Senate Transportation Committee said that he won't support a diesel tax and gas tax increase as long as there is a high number of overweight truck violations in Michigan.

"There were 5,503 overweight truck violations in Michigan last year. At the end of the day, we are all taxpayers and we are paying for this. The construction industry wants a diesel tax and gas tax increase. I have said, why should I support a tax increase when we have 80,000 pounds more truck weight than any state around us? So we throw more money into the roads so that they can be torn up again by overweight trucks. If you want to look at the diesel tax increase, then you also need to look at weight limits on trucks. So, if the construction industry doesn't want to go there, then I'm not going to look at increasing taxes," Basham said.

Jay Frost, AccuGrade product manager for Michigan CAT, explained the benefits of global positioning systems (GPS) to attendees.

Frost said that staking projects take a lot of time and labor to set up. "There are some tools that appear expensive on the outset, but you may find that they are very, very productive and worth the investment," Frost said.

"The new way is an integrated system. The new way includes two-way communication between your office and the machine. The new way lays out a design that your machine will follow. Pre-planning in the office gets carried out to the field and makes your average machine operators good and your good machine operators great. It saves you time, money, materials, and equipment.

"It saves time by reducing grade checking by 66 percent and improving production by 30 percent to 50 percent or more. You can work in all weather, day or night. You can work in all visibility conditions. You can help identify problems on the project early. It saves you money by reducing your survey costs. There is up to 90-percent reduction in finished staking."

Frost said that there is improved recordkeeping, more satisfied customers and lower costs. "GPS or machine control and guidance will save materials. You can verify your plan quantities with these tools before the job starts. You can verify dirt being moved, accurately stockpile quantities of material and have more precise grading. It saves your equipment because you can spread compacted material on the grade in one pass," Frost said.

"You can improve your operation and have consistent data management. It puts the site design in the cab of the machine so that the operator can see everything at once. It provides the ability to grade and work complex surfaces efficiently. It eliminates steps in the process. There are no line site constraints with 3-D GPS. Your grade stakes and monuments are visualized from the display in the cab."