Federal Grant for Michigan’s Mound Road Shows Drivers Not Living Their Best Lives on State’s Failing Infrastructure

Part One of a Two-Part Series

If incontrovertible evidence is needed that America’s transportation infrastructure is decaying, one need look no farther than Michigan, a destination state in the Great Lakes region whose success is also rooted in manufacturing and agribusiness.

Michigan residents have faced the highest car insurance rates and drive on some of the worst roads in the nation. For a state whose identity and history are synonymous with the automobile, mobility has become an inescapable concern.

This year, a “Modernizing Michigan’s Transportation” report from the national transportation research group TRIP concluded that “driving on Michigan’s transportation system costs the state’s motorists a total of $14.1 billion every year in the form of additional vehicle operating costs (VOC), congestion-related delays and traffic crashes.” It also noted that 2015 legislation [designed to add $1.2 billion in new revenue to the transportation budget annually once it is fully implemented] that increased the gas tax and registration fees and set funding allocations is “not sufficient to fully address the significant deterioration of the system, or to allow the state to provide many of the transportation improvements needed to support economic growth.”

Estimates are that the state currently needs an additional $2 billion annually because the condition of Michigan’s trunkline and local road systems continues to decline, the Senate Fiscal Agency (SFA) reported to local lawmakers at the beginning of this year. More recently, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who campaigned on a platform to “fix the damn roads,” proposed a 45-cent gas-tax increase to seed more infrastructure revenue — an idea that made a number of state legislators bristle.

Leaders now are evaluating how to come up with a state fiscal budget that can address worn-out roads in a national policy climate in which underfunded and unraveling infrastructure could become one of the largest failures of this era if states and the federal government do not act to increase substantial investment. State officials also worry about whether allocations will have regional parity and stakeholders agree that the federal gas-tax rate, which provides revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, is primitive.

“Funding infrastructure is a partnership. We have to do a much better job at both the federal level and the state level if we’re going to keep Michigan and America moving forward,” says Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Rich Studley, who oversees an organization that represents around 5,700 companies throughout the state that employ one million people. “I think the challenge we have in Michigan today is like the challenge at the national level and that is that Congress and the president have failed to agree on a multi-year program to substantially increase transportation funding. We are an older industrial state and some of the very first sections of the Interstate Highway System were built in Michigan. We have bridges that are still in operation today that had a design life of 40 years and now it’s 50 or 60 years later and they’re showing wear and tear, and we have that challenge all over the state. And in many parts of the state, and at the local level, roads are deteriorating and in very bad shape.”

Chronicling Michigan’s transportation troubles means recognizing that counties and cities throughout the United States are struggling with how to fund local projects that have tremendous importance in their communities and beyond.

“With the current funding situation, we are doing all that we can with the resources we have available and advocating for consistent and significant long-term investments,” explains Bryan Santo, Director of the Macomb County Department of Roads. “The condition of Michigan’s infrastructure is widely recognized as the state’s most pressing challenge. We have a demand for maintenance and repairs that far outweighs available state and federal funding. We’re moving forward on an annual, year-to-year basis and barely treading water as far as improving overall pavement conditions. Many of the preventative maintenance projects that could preserve the good and fair roadways fall by the wayside because we have to deal with the roads in critical condition to get those up to standards for safe vehicle travel.”

How Federal Infrastructure Funding Factors In 

Consider the defense sector and automotive companies moving goods and people on unsafe and congested arterial roads and you’ll understand Michigan’s Mound Road. The nine-mile corridor is part of the National Freight Highway Network but — as a 30-year-old, resurfaced, eight-lane stretch notorious for cavernous potholes — very much needs to be reconstructed. It is a critical connection between heavily traveled I-696 and M-59, which in turn tie in to 1-94 and I-75, two of the longest interstates in the country, according to the Mound Road Industrial Corridor Technology and Innovation Project narrative.

“Mound Road is a microcosm of the problem nationwide, which is certainly exacerbated in the state of Michigan … and that [problem] is we’re simply underfunding infrastructure. We don’t have adequate funding to reconstruct roads properly so what do we do? We use Band-Aid approaches. We resurface a road when the roadway should be completely reconstructed,” says Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool. “Mound Road exhausted its useful life a number of years ago and should have been reconstructed. We’ve had to resort to Band-Aids to get it by from year to year, frustrating the general public who uses that road and people keep thinking, ‘Why can’t they get it right? Why do they keep making these repairs that fall apart?’

“There are many other examples of roadways like Mound across the country. We certainly know that. We can’t continue to be considered a first-rate country with deplorable infrastructure.”

But Mound Road has been extended a lifeline: an unprecedented U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) $97.8 million federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant that will help transform this tired corridor into an economic surety and state-of-the art connector.

Mound Road, which has more than 70 major employers near or along it, supports or is home to companies such as BAE Systems, the Warren General Motors Technical Center, the Sterling Heights Ford Axle Plant, the Sterling Heights Chrysler Assembly Plant, General Dynamics Land Systems, and the U.S. Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) and Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) facilities, and its economic footprint is $8.7 billion annually.

Businesses, area leaders and the cities of Sterling Heights and Warren and Macomb County (where Mound Road is located) came together as a community and formed a public-private partnership, called Innovate Mound, and coordinated efforts to apply for the federal grant and build allies, including officials in Washington, D.C.

Plans are for a $200 million new corridor with connected-vehicles technology, updated smart transit, advanced signalization, widened lanes, pedestrian and bicycle pathways, improved functionality for freight traffic, real-time communications, design-build delivery, landscaping and signage, according to Santo.

The project, which is projected to be completed in 2024, received the largest INFRA or Fostering Advancements In Shipping And Transportation For The Long-Term Achievement Of National Efficiencies (FASTLANE) grant ever given to an applicant other than a state DOT, a federal official confirmed. Macomb County has hired an owner’s representative, HNTB, and will be overseeing the project which also received funding from the county, the two cities and alternative funding sources.

But, as Michiganders point out, Mound Road is just one problem and were it not for the federal grant, the revamped corridor would not be happening anytime soon.

Read part two of this story.

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