Michigan’s Potholed Roads: A Rant
Oh my Lord these friggin’ roads…… As if to add insult to injury after what has been a historically dreadful winter here in Michigan, the ice and snow has melted away from our roads to reveal a natural disaster on a scale we haven’t seen around here since, well, ever. I’m talking about the potholes.
That’s a funny little word, isn’t it? Pothole. Sounds innocent enough. Pot. Hole. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that could possibly cripple an entire state’s economy, or at the very least make your commute to work a living nightmare. But when you’re dealing with a pothole outbreak like we are, the lowly pothole has turned into something bigger. Literally.
What the hell is a pothole, anyway? For those of you in areas of the country blessed (or cursed, winter’s not all that bad) to not have to deal with frost-thaw cycles on a semi-regular basis, you might not even know what the big deal is. Your roads are nice and smooooth. Unfortunately, when it gets cold, like below freezing cold, a funny thing happens to paved roads. They form potholes, and then they crumble to shit.
I’m about as far from being a scientist as it’s possible to get without actually being a monkey, but pothole formation happens a little something like this: It gets cold out. Cold enough to freeze water. Cold enough, long enough, to freeze the ground. The same ground we foolishly throw our paved roads down on. Then it snows, and then it snows some more. Snow is what? Nothing but frozen water. Beautiful, harmless snow. At this point, everything’s cool. White Christmas, yule logs, wassailing, the whole nine yards. It’s cold, but it’s winter in the north country.
Then, around the end of February or so, the Earth slowly starts to tip its Northern Hemisphere back towards the sun. The days get longer, the sun’s rays get stronger, and the temperatures start to creep north of freezing. The temps go above freezing, and then at night they go back below. Then they go back up. Then back down. Up and down. These fluctuations are the crux of the problem. Constantly thawing and freezing ice in the ground under roads, especially in the large amounts we’ve got this winter, is a real bitch.
We like to think of the ground, and our roads, as fairly stable things. But if you freeze the ground, thaw it, and then repeat it’s like a million little invisible, slow-moving earthquakes. Ice builds up under the pavement. That ice rises and falls depending on the temperature. Falling temps, rising ice. Rising temps, sinking ice. The rising ice pushes up against the bottom of the roads’ surface. When that ice thaws and sinks, sometimes the road sinks with it, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, a gap forms between the road surface and the actual ground. Think of it like a bubble, or a blister. When hundreds and thousands of very heavy vehicles pound these road bubbles all day and all night, those bubbles break and the asphalt crumbles, and you’ve got yourself a brand new pothole, brother. The real clinker? These newly formed holes fill with water from thawing ice, which in turn freezes and thaws, freezes and thaws, etc. etc., making everything just that much worse.
A pothole here and there is inevitable anywhere there are roads, cars, and freeze/thaw cycles. The brightest scientists and engineers have yet to come up with a road surface that won’t buckle and fall apart under such conditions. Luckily, our state government budgets for pothole repair, and in milder years they do a pretty good job filling these potholes up. But again, this has been a tragically brutal winter, and it’s creating more potholes, and bigger potholes, than usual. Road crews can’t keep up, and the potholes they do manage to fill in are often reformed just as quickly. It’s a nightmare.
The news is full of reports on how auto repair shops and tire dealers are having trouble keeping up with the demand caused by so many people doing so much damage to their cars by running them into these rapidly-multiplying potholes. (Note to self: Invest in auto repair and tire shops.) There are even stories on how to properly hit a pothole to minimize damage to your vehicle. Trust me, there’s too many to avoid. If you drive a car, you’re going to hit potholes. Seriously, look at this road. This is what every road in Michigan looks like right now. You think I’m kidding? I am not kidding. In fact, after a second glance that road there actually doesn’t look that bad compared to most.
Now comes the real issue. What are we as a state going to do to fix this problem? Road repair in this type of climate costs enormous amounts of money. More money than our state government feels willing to spend on it. Michigan spent almost $9 million fixing roads in 2013, and will double that in 2014. But that’s like putting a teeny tiny Dora the Explorer bandaid on someone who just got hit by a train. It’s way too little to effectively address the problem. So not only do we adequately maintain and fix the roads, but they get a little bit worse every year. Add a winter like this one, and the problem escalates in a hurry.
While Michigan lawmakers have approved a $215 million package for road repair this year, it’s still just a temporary fix for a long-term problem that’s not going to go away or get any better without some serious financial backing. How big? It’s estimated that the number needed to fund decent road repair and infrastructure upkeep would run into the billions. Every year. This is in a state with leadership vehemently against any type of new taxation whatsoever, including the logical increase in fuel taxes that would provide this funding. Michigan, like much of the country, is locked into an “All Tax Cuts, All the Time” mentality that’s great for taxpayers, but harmful to things like maintaining the very infrastructure that helps us work, play, live, and get around without destroying our cars. Until our leaders get serious about finding a way, some way, to fix the road issue, our roads will continue to crumble, and our economy will suffer. If I owned a business, there’s no way I would consider locating to Michigan with the condition of our roads. I shudder to think of the added expense associated with shipping goods over our horrifying highways and bridges.
As a Michigander, I’m embarrassed by the whole thing. To drive our roads, ANY roads, is to see the effect that ignoring basic infrastructural upkeep is doing. These are Third World roads. These are dangerous roads. These are barely “roads” at all. Some have called for turning some streets and roadways back to gravel in order to make them less expensive and less hazardous. Does that sound like progress to you? Turning our ruined roads back to gravel in order TO IMPROVE THEM?? No, that’s not progress, that’s massive regress, but that’s where we’re at. We’ve got a massive problem that’s getting worse by the day, and a legislature too timid to find realistic solutions. The solutions won’t be easy, and they won’t be cheap. But kicking the can down the road for another day isn’t helping. That’s not governing. That’s doing nothing. Government by non-government is not government.
Personally, I’d like to see the number of cars and trucks on the road drastically reduced. Investing in high-speed rail for passengers and shifting more freight traffic to railways would ease congestion and take huge numbers of vehicles off the roads. That would reduce gas tax revenue, sure, but it would also reduce some of the wear and tear. Besides, sooner or later we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for a world that’s much less dependent on fossil fuels, anyway. But that’s another huge topic altogether, and my vision for a car-free utopia is pie-in-the-sky at best. The reality is we need our roads, and will need them for the foreseeable future. And we really need them to be in better condition. We’ve got to starting finding a way to take better care of them. Starting yesterday, we need to find a way. The situation is desperate. I don’t want to live in a state that thinks these conditions are better than a few more cents added to a gallon of gas to help fix them.
Listen…. I love this state. I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life, and while it’s in our nature to bitch about the place, it’s really a great place to be. The natural beauty that surrounds us here is literally breathtaking, and our state spends millions of dollars trying to entice tourists to visit each year. That’s great. You’re all welcome to visit. We could really use your tourism dollars. There’s lots to see and do here. But if you do come, and I really hate to say this, you’ve got to realize that driving on our crumbling roadways is probably going to damage your vehicle. So please, plan accordingly. Have a spare ready to go, have your AAA membership up to date. Michigan’s got a bit of a reputation for having shitty shitty roads. And we live up to that reputation, which is too bad. We’re better that this. First impressions are typically the ones that last, and one of the first impressions people get when they cross that Michigan state line and start dodging the gigantic holes in our roads is not a positive one. It’s time to fix it.