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Pothole patrol: funding issues dishearten RCOC, Lake Orion community

January 22, 2014 - By Meg Peters

Review Staff Writer

Some citizens have described traveling down Orion's back roads as an African safari adventure.

While there aren't any lions, tigers or bears the potholes that are causing drivers to say, 'Oh, my!'

Darlene Dysarczyk lives off of Indian Lake Rd., and got wedged and stuck in a pothole last week. "All I have to do is get out of my subdivision, go down the hill to Lapeer, and I couldn't," Dysarczyk said. Her front tire got stuck, she caused a 10-car back up, and eventually three other drivers had to help push her out.

"I'm embarrassed to invite anybody to visit my home," Mike Korb said, homeowner in White Oak Subdivision off Clarkston east of Lapeer. He noticed gravel had been laid on his road before it rained a couple weeks ago, to no avail.

Korb has already repaired his car twice. Others have complained of replacing rims,and school buses are late both in the morning and afternoon.

Potholes have remained frozen in the ground, un-gradable until the next thaw.

Lake George Rd., Indian Lake, Drahner and Baldwin are top on township resident's lists as almost impassable, with Clarkston's dirt portion, Drahner and Silverbell not far behind.

It's called the freeze-thaw cycle

The two storms that left Orion Township buried under almost 14 inches of snow, along with the 40-degree heat wave and additional rain, have created the recipe for disaster, according to Public Information Officer Craig Bryson from the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC).

"It's like making potholes on steroids," Bryson said.

Water gets into the cracks of already deteriorating roads—both paved and dirt—freezes and expands. Warmer temperatures cause water to melt, creating a void from where the ice was. Cars drive over the voids, they crack, and a pothole is born.

"This is happening on a road system that is woefully inadequately maintained for decades because we have not received enough money to resurface roads when they should have been for years. So the roads are more cracked and conditioned for potholes," he said.

The biggest problems are the gravel roads, he continued.

With the ground frozen almost two feet down, no piece of equipment has enough downward force to scrape away ice and smooth out the craters. Graders pull up chunks of gravel below if the ice does come up, and makes the surface even rougher.

Patch crews were out for a few days last week but salt and plow crews take precedence if conditions get wet and snowy.

"The crux of the problem is we are down staff, down equipment and simply cannot provide the same level of service," Bryson said.

Where all that funding goes

The RCOC is funded through the Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF), a state revenue that is collected and distributed to counties, cities and villages.

The revenue is comprised of both gas and diesel taxes combined with vehicle registration fees based on the value of the automobile.

Drivers currently pay an additional 19 cents per gallon of gas (15 cents for diesel) that goes strictly to the MTF fund.

The state of Michigan then double dips, taxing the gas tax with the 6 percent sales tax. The sales tax, however, does not fund Michigan's roads.

Administration then calculates funds for state highways, county roads and municipal streets through formula enacted in Public Act 51.

Oakland County received roughly $60 million in MTF revenues in 2013, and around $50 million from federal grants allocated for specific construction projects. Of their $60 million operating budget, RCOC generally spends $12 million a year on winter maintenance like salting and plowing, and about $5 million on pothole patching.

Individual property taxes do not fund roads in any way, a large misconception Bryson said.

"The roads are terrible because the funding has nothing to do with the affluence of the county," he said.

Minnesota pays about 29 cents per gallon in gas tax, Ohio 28, Wisconsin charges 31 cents per gallon, and Indiana about 18 cents.

"That means that you and I are paying less to maintain our roads then the residents of other states," Bryson said. "And that means we have crappier roads to show for it."

A decrease in state funding is the bottom line problem. From 2001 to 2011 Michigan's gas tax revenue decreased over $100 million, according to a report conducted by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

In 2014 there is even less, Bryson said, adding Oakland County has been in communication with state legislation asking for more funding.

"The big problem we've seen over the years is we use less gasoline now than we used to," said Brad Jacobsen, State Rep. for north Oakland County.

"Back in the 1970s a typical car got 12-15 miles per gallon, now cars get in the 20s and 30s."

Not to mention more people are driving hybrid and electric cars, he added, also contributing to decreasing fuel taxes.

Jacobsen has sat on the House Committee of Transportation and Infrastructure for the past three years, and said there has been no agreement on a long-term solution for the lack of funding.

Reworking Public Act 51 to transfer some additional money for asphalt and concrete work is a possible option. The committee has also considered a one-cent increase to the 6 percent sales tax, dedicated strictly to roads.

"Good luck, that's a joke, because we'd never see it here," Korb said.

Jacobsen prefers to rework the formula. "It's not a huge increase as far as tax increases go, but people have shown very little interest in doing that," Jacobsen said. "When you look at what it costs for a set of new tires, tie-rods, and damages to your car versus paying an extra couple cents per gallon, I think it probably is a better value to pay for road improvements," he said.

The $970 million-budget surplus Michigan has potentially gained from business and sales tax revenues is anticipated to send some money to roads, Jacobsen said, but how much is yet to be determined.

Prioritizing pothole patching

January's winter storms already gobbled up about $3 million in road maintenance, including the use of nearly 9,000 hours of overtime work by staff.

"That's $3 million that we no longer have available for repairing roads," RCOC Chairman Greg Jamian said in a press release.

This means less road surfacing in the summer, less aesthetic maintenance, and the last thing to be cut would be safety-related activities, like pothole patching, Bryson said.

"As soon as we get done salting and plowing, and getting the roads as safe as we can, then we'll move to gravel maintenance and pothole patching," he explained.

Because weather changes on a daily basis, so do too the conditions of the back roads, and thus there are no set priority lists when it comes to grading and patching bad roads.

"Gravel roads are wild, they can be fine one day and a mess the next day, it's really a constantly changing, daily re-prioritizing of where the greatest needs are," he said, while apologizing for being vague.

Last week, patching crews were working on gravel roads in the morning, and by afternoon had to pull trucks to start plowing because the weather had changed.

Bryson said RCOC garage supervision drive the roads every day trying to determine where to devote resources.

"It looks like no one has touched them, but that doesn't mean we haven't done what we could on them," Bryson said. "We can spend half a day on a gravel road and make very little difference, and people say nobody's touched it. A lot of the folks who work here feel like they provide a critical service to the people and it's very frustrating to know that they are doing everything they can and it's not resolving the problems," he said.

"It just isn't good enough for me to hear that we don't have enough money, I don't want to hear it, I want my road fixed," Dysarczyk said.

The RCOC is trying, but can't guarantee anything.

"We will do everything we can to make the roads passable, and unfortunately the reality is that's the unfortunate part about living on a gravel road. If you choose to live in a more rural area that's part of the tradeoff," Bryson said.

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