According to a Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll last week, 58% of Michiganders would rather continue whining about their roads than fixing them. I don’t find this terribly surprising.
It is conventional wisdom in Michigan that the condition of our roads is among the country’s worst. I’ve read a number of different theories for why this may be. One is that we have unusually high weight limits for trucks. Another is the freeze-thaw cycle that results from our harsh winters. Another is American road construction standards, which generate cheaper bills but demand more frequent repairs. Presumably each of these factors contributes to our bumpy rides, to some extent.
What I almost never hear cited as a factor is how incredibly overbuilt Michigan is. (Credit due to Urbanophile, who has written at length about this phenomenon elsewhere in the country, and Charles Marohn, whose theory of the “growth Ponzi scheme” I’ve praised.) And by Michigan I primarily mean metro Detroit, with Genesee and Saginaw counties also shouldering significant amounts of blame. Is it any coincidence that these areas also have some of the most segregated populations, auto-centric layouts, depressed home values, and dysfunctional inner cities in the entire country? The Detroit, Flint and Saginaw metropolitan areas are the poster children for autocentric sprawl, and have reaped their just desserts for it. Among the consequences of the sprawl is that, of course, we can’t afford to pay to maintain the countless miles of asphalt laid to service it. And MDOT, unbelievably, responds to this situation by proposing expansion projects like adding lanes to I-94 in the city of Detroit. You can’t blame respondents to the Free Press poll for thinking that the last thing we need to do is throw more money at the imbeciles running our state’s transportation policy.
In the spirit of problem-solving, here’s my proposal to help solve two problems at once: our threadbare roads and our decimated industrial inner cities. Restrict all state dollars allocated toward road construction and maintenance to the oldest paved segments. Earmark the majority of road dollars toward the core streets that serviced central cities and inner suburbs before, say, World War II, giving an edge to fiscally struggling older communities across the state like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti, Pontiac, and Saginaw, as well as dense and walkable older communities like Plymouth, Rochester or Brighton.
This will never happen, of course, because Michiganders continue to overwhelmingly choose exurban isolation over city life, and dependency on car travel to the exclusion of any other form of transit. They will continue to do so, even as the roads they travel disintegrate to rubble and eventually, one by one, revert to gravel. They will continue to lament the potholes and the flat tires because they’d rather complain than pay a nickel more in gas taxes. Their leaders will continue to subsidize greenfield development over infill, convinced that for their particular community at least the bill will never come due.
It’s the Michigan way.
PS 2-8-12: I also want to make it clear that I think the proposal
, introduced by State Sen. Howard Walker, to scrap the state’s gas tax in favor of paying for roads with a sales tax increase is insane. The gas tax should be increased, not scrapped, and we should not be shifting the burden of paying for roads from heavy users (people who drive a lot) to light users (people who bike, walk, carpool or ride the bus). This bill idea deserves to die.