Michigan Roads – a Political Failure

This week’s hot issue, which has completely baffled the Michigan State Legislature, is how to fix Michigan’s crappy roads. All the Democrats and all the Republicans understand that crappy roads are bad for business and bad for the citizens of Michigan. All understand it’s an urgent issue. None the less, the legislature adjourned after many hours of arguing how to address the issue, and a string of votes in which all suggested measures failed.

Approximately half of the damage to roads and bridges in Michigan is caused by salt – applied generously every winter by local road commissions and the state highway department. This means roads which otherwise would last for 20 years need to be replaced in 10. Bridges that should last for over 50 years are visibly deteriorating in 20, and are unsafe 30 years after they are built.

It follows that half the solution to deteriorating roads and bridges is eliminating road salt – sodium chloride, calcium chloride and any of the other compounds that are chemically classified as “salts.” The chloride ion in common salt is responsible for corrosion of steel in reinforced concrete, bridge structures and incidentally in the structural component of cars and trucks. It’s so serious an issue that, at the infamous Zilwaukee Bridge (on I-75 north of Saginaw), road salt is forbidden so it does not further weaken the spans.

If road salt cannot, for practical reasons, be immediately eliminated, its use can be immidiately minimized and safer, though more immediately expensive, substitutes used – especially around bridges and similar reinforced concrete and steel structures such as parking garages. The increased short-term expenses are more than compensated by the extended useful lifetime of expensive infrastructure. it should not matter that the increased and decreased expenses come from different departments of government, though the heads of departments competing for annual budget money might tell us it does matter.

Longer-term solutions for the other half of the problem involve a variety of approaches. Weight limits for trucks and taxes that increase for vehicle weights and miles travelled are certainly part of the longer-term solution. When walking and bicycling increases and use of automobiles decrease, it is because neighborhoods are rebuilt to encourage it. Rebuilding urban neighborhoods also runs counter to suburban/exurban sprawl and loooong daily commutes. When local production replaces global production, goods are shipped tens or hundreds of miles instead of thousands. For foods are grown in backyard and community gardens, there is no such thing as shipping.

Almost all of the policy changes mentioned above push our economy in the direction of using less energy, particularly less fossil fuel and nuclear energy. That’s why simply increasing taxes for rebuilding roads, no matter what the source of the taxes, is not anywhere near a complete solution.

Art Myatt

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