Michiganians want good roads and there is no doubt a good transportation infrastructure is important to Michigan’s economy. Of course, this takes money and there’s no secret Michigan is struggling with budget deficits. Last month, a bipartisan legislative committee recommending doubling Michigan’s road funding. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) even made a propaganda film, using my tax dollars, to justify it. And now, Gov. Rick “No New Gas Tax” Snyder flip-flopped, à la Romney, and climbed on board the tax increase steam roller.
I want good roads, just like everybody else. But I’m not convinced MDOT is spending our money as wisely as they say. I get the whole Federal-State match thing, but to squander 20% on stupid stuff to get the 80% is not solving the problem. I offer Exhibit A: mile marker signs with the direction, highway designation, and, in urban areas, placed every 1-2 tenths of a mile. If someone needs to be reminded what highway they’re on and which direction they’re going every 2/10ths of a mile, they shouldn’t be driving. Even if these markers cost the same as the originals, which they don’t, the cost has skyrocketed 5 times; for no significant value. The irony is the example pictured was part of a Detroit News article warning how bad Michigan’s roads are going to get. And don’t even get me started on the project a few years ago when the replaced all of the big green signs for better night visibility. Why not replace them as they wore out or got damaged?
As Exhibit B, I offer Michigan’s so-called Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), intended to facilitate traffic around greater Grand Rapids and southeast Michigan (metro Detroit). The most visible aspect of ITS are the nearly 100 variable message signs (VMS) like the one pictured, including those at Grayling and Clare for which there is no traffic congestion justification. The VMS routinely depict messages about as useful as the one pictured near Grand Rapids. With fall approaching, you can expect them to say “Don’t veer for dear.” I spend a lot of time on the road and I think I can count one one hand the number of times a VMS has assisted my travels in any meaningful way.
But ITS is more than just useless electronic signs. It includes nearly 270 closed circuit TVs, not counting the out-state ones like those in the upper peninsula, obviously with no congestion management purpose. And it includes two manned operations centers. MDOT’s website shows 3 people in the metro Detroit center, presumably a typical shift of staff that “oversees a traffic monitoring system”“. Neither these MDOT employees nor the VMS they are masters of contribute substantially to reducing congestion. At what expense are we gaining such miniscule benefit?
For Exhibit C, I offer the I-94/I-696 interchange. MDOT completely reconstructed this interchange in 2010 to the same exact specifications as existed previously. Here’s the problem with that: two lanes exit from I-94 east and west each to become four lanes of I-696 west, except the right lane becomes exit only in a quarter mile at Gratiot, a major arterial. Why didn’t MDOT add another lane to accomodate this and allow four lanes to continue past Gratiot? Gratiot’s westbound on-ramp restores the fourth lane. The same intersection was previously rebuilt, again to the same standards, in the late 1990s. So, despite changes in traffic volumes and flows, MDOT has rebuilt the I-94/I-696 interchange twice to 40-year-old (1968) design criteria.
While I could keep going on, let me finish with Exhibit D, the 30 MDOT transportation service centers across the state. This includes five in metro Detroit alone. At least MDOT plans to consolidate some service centers. I hope they reduce their seemingly large fleet of red minivans, with several to a dozen or more at each service center.
Before MDOT expects additional state revenues for road projects, they need to show they’re fiscally responsible and working smart with what they get. The additional lanes at the reworked Okemos/I-96 interchange is proof they can when they want to. Oh, and don’t use my tax dollars to lobby me about your funding.
Previously on Michigan Roads: