Fixing the Damn Roads
It's been a challenge for the county road commission since 1919. The problem has always been money.
by Grace Shackman
From the September, 2019 issue
As the Observer went to press, Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer was locked in a stare-down with the Republican-controlled state legislature. Whitmer, who campaigned on a promise to "fix the damn roads," wants to raise the state's gas tax by forty-five cents a gallon to pay for it. GOP leaders have neither moved that forward nor offered a road plan of their own. If they pass a budget with no new road money, the governor could veto it--at the risk of shutting down the state government if a budget isn't passed by the end of September.
Who will fix the roads--and who will pay for it--have been thorny issues for most of Michigan's history. In the nineteenth century, it was almost entirely a local affair. It took a constitutional amendment to create the state highway department in 1905, and local voters first approved, then dissolved, a county road commission before the present Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC) was created in 1919.
At the time, most country roads were dirt, some no more than wagon tracks. In Ann Arbor, a few downtown streets were paved, but the rest could go from a muddy swamp to being so dry that the dust interfered with visibility. It was clear that a countywide solution was badly needed.
The state's earliest roads usually followed Native American trails along the highest driest ground. Then, when the counties were surveyed in the early nineteenth century, farm roads were laid out in grids. Though trees were cleared, their surface was whatever nature had provided--often clay that became virtually impassable each spring.
The movement for better roads started in the 1880s when the League of American Bicyclists wanted to make it easier to ride between towns. Cleverly hitching their cause to others', they urged governments to "Get the Farmers Out of the Mud." Their lobbying efforts were later joined by automobile owners, a push that intensified after Ford's Model T made car ownership widespread.
the creation of the commission, roads were the responsibility of townships. Residents were taxed a certain amount, which they could pay in cash, by working on the roads themselves, or by loaning horses and oxen. The work entailed filling horse-drawn wagons with small stones from a gravel pit and spreading them on the roads--men turned a plank by hand to shoot the stones out. In the stretches between these work sessions, farmers were supposed to maintain the roads in front of their own farms.
After voters created the WCRC, the county board of supervisors appointed a three-man commission to run it (the first woman wasn't appointed until 2001). They had a simple mandate: build and maintain all the roads except those being taken care of by cities or villages. By 1921 they had 104 miles of roads under their jurisdiction, only eight miles of which were paved.
The commission set up offices in the county courthouse and purchased a yard for their equipment on W. Washington between Third St. and the Ann Arbor Railroad. They built garages there and stored supplies such as sand and salt in a center court.
At first they continued the old system of having farmers maintain what the state called "public wagon roads," but now they worked for the county. "The farmers would keep county-owned graders in their barnyards until after rain rendered work in the fields impossible. They then would hitch the grader to a team and grade the section of the road running by their farm," explained Kenneth Hallenbeck, who started working for the WCRC in 1921, when he was twenty years old, and became the manager in 1935. "Each farmer mailed a postal card to the Road Commissions showing the hours he had spent grading and a pay check was mailed back to him," Hallenbeck continued in a 1948 Ann Arbor News article.
Roads connecting the county with the rest of the state were called "trunk lines." The first one to be paved by the road commission was from Ann Arbor to Jackson. Plymouth Rd. was another early project, including building the section going around Broadway.
In 1931 the state legislature mandated that county road agencies take over all township roads over the next five years. The goal was to improve efficiency and make sure roads were built to the proper standards, including a sixty-six-foot easement.
At the time, counties were taking over many functions from townships, including replacing township "overseers of the poor" with county social services and constables with county sheriffs. Better roads helped make the centralization work.
Ernie Allmendinger joined the road commission in 1921 as a foreman and rose to be chief engineer from 1935 to 1954. A former U-M football star, Allmendinger hired football players to work on the roads in the summer.
In a reminiscence, he remembered that in the early days, the commission worked closely with landowners to ascertain the original road boundaries. They were "helpful in locating the old government monuments [markers] which they remembered seeing as boys when they may have helped on the farm survey or heard their fathers discuss the problem." A crew would then straighten curves, cut down steep hills, dig drainage ditches and culverts, and put down a base of good gravel.
When they finished, they would put up wire fences to delineate the right of way and to serve as a barrier to drifting snow. Some of these fences can still be seen on rural roads.
During the Depression, the road commission was aided by as many as 200 men working for the federal Works Progress Administration jobs program. In 1938, the state constitution was amended to earmark gasoline fuel and vehicle weight taxes solely for highway funding. And in 1941, as the WPA ended, Washtenaw and Wayne counties got federal funds to build roads for Ford's Willow Run bomber plant. These were the beginning of Michigan's freeway system.
The rest of World War II was more of a challenge. The road commission couldn't buy new equipment or replacement parts, and some employees left to join the fighting. They just tried to keep up with maintenance using what they had, sometimes making parts by hand.
After the war, the state contracted with the road commission to maintain the state highways that pass through the county, which it's done ever since.
But in 1950 they were still playing catchup after the war. "The Road Commission is handicapped by lack of funds and sufficient personnel," Allmendinger told the News.
The state legislature reacted by doing a two-year study on needs and costs, then acting on it with clearer regulations and an increase in gas and weight taxes. In 1952 Howard Minier, who had replaced Hallenbeck as manager a year earlier, explained to the Board of Supervisors how this money would be allocated, with a focus on the most used roads.
Often, generations of the same family worked on the roads. Judy Humble, widow of employee Bob Humble, has memories that go back to the 1940s and 50s; she had an uncle and a brother who also worked there. There were no college grads on the road crews in those days, she says: "Some couldn't read or write."
In 1965 the commission moved into a new headquarters at 555 N. Zeeb near I-94. By then the buildings on Washington were more than forty years old but were still functional. The city took them over and used them till the Wheeler Service Center on Ellsworth opened in 2007.
The main reason for the move was logistical. Since most of the work was outside Ann Arbor city limits, equipment had to be driven out of town before being put to use. Also, the low railroad crossing on Washington St. damaged some of their suppliers' trucks. The new headquarters, built in a C shape, had wings for administration and engineering, a garage for the equipment, and a repair shop.
By 2000 the road commission had outgrown its 1965 building. A separate administration building was built facing Zeeb, freeing up room in the original building. There are four yards around the county to take care of the roads in their areas; a dedicated crew at Zeeb Rd. headquarters takes care of the highways.
Judy Humble's husband, Bob, was foreman of the Ypsilanti yard. He was hired on as a laborer in 1959, working as a street sweeper, grader, and truck driver before becoming a foreman, retiring in 1995. "I didn't get mad if Bob came home late. That was his job," she says, remarking on the many times the workers worked overtime in big snowstorms. (During a storm this past January, some worked thirty-two hours straight.)
Dick Miller worked at the road commission from 1971 to 1996, starting, like Humble, as a laborer. He rose in the ranks to become foreman of the Chelsea yard. He says the basic functions haven't changed, but they've gotten more efficient. Work once done by hand is now done by machines which have become "more economical to run and easier to maintain."
The trade-off is that now truck drivers and mechanics have to be adept with computers. "Today the inside of the cabs look like a video game," explains WCRC communications manager Emily Kizer. "They have multiple systems that can control different features from the truck, such as material distribution rates."
The road commission staff no longer builds new roads, but it oversees contractors on projects like the county's two dozen new roundabouts. It also incorporates streets in new subdivisions if developers build them to state standards.
Winters are mainly spent removing snow and ice. In the summer, crews work on repairing potholes on paved roads, regrading gravel ones, and improving drainage.
The current road commission is made up of Barbara Ryan Fuller from Sharon Twp., Rodrick Green of Superior Twp., and Doug Fuller of Scio Twp. Their most important job is to appoint the managing director. When Roy Townsend retired recently, they choose Sheryl Soderholm Siddall, who had been director of engineering. It made for a "seamless transition," says Barbara Fuller. Siddall, who has both law and engineering degrees, is the first woman to head the road commission.
As always, the big challenge is funding. The federal gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993, and the state's has been frozen since 1997. Budget cuts during the Great Recession increased the backlog of neglected work. In 2011, then-governor Rick Snyder's administration estimated that catching up would take $1.2 billion over five years.
Dissatisfied with state funding, Ann Arbor adopted its own road repair millage in the 1980s. County commissioners were more reluctant to take on a responsibility the state had been neglecting, but in 2014 they put a one-time 0.5-mill tax on the ballot, and voters approved it.
It was needed. When Republicans in the legislature stonewalled Snyder's call to raise the gas tax he tried appealing directly to voters, but in 2015 they rejected his complex plan by a four-to-one margin in 2015. Eighteen months later, the legislature grudgingly appropriated $600 million, with a promise that future legislatures would raid the state general fund for another $600 million.
In 2016, county voters passed another half-mill tax, this time for four years. The money is divided between the road commission, villages and cities, and the county's Border-to-Border nonmotorized trail.
It's still not enough. Asked about the biggest challenge facing the road commission, Barbara Fuller answers without hesitation, "We don't have enough money to maintain the roads and haven't for decades. Ohio and Pennsylvania have much better roads because they are willing to pay for them, while we've been patching and trying to make do."
Governor Whitmer's plan would fill the gap--if the legislature cooperates. If it doesn't, the road commission can look forward to more years of making do--and asking county residents to pay what the state won't.
The Washtenaw County Road Commission is holding events all year to celebrate its 100th birthday. A complete list is on their website, wcroads.org, along with more than 600 historic images.
[Originally published in September, 2019.]
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