Potholes and Potshots
The city's cratered streets have become a political battleground.
From the August, 2018 issue
Mayor Christopher Taylor and his Democratic primary challenger, Ward 4 councilmember Jack Eaton, are sniping at each other over the state of the streets. Eaton says poor preparation lost the city valuable grant money during the Great Recession, while Taylor says his opponent's plan would have lost far more. But to veteran public services manager Craig Hupy, the real culprit is in Lansing.
"That is the pothole," says Hupy, pointing to widely diverging lines on a graph. "This blue line is our Act 51 revenue, and the red line is the Consumer Price Index."
Hupy explains that under Michigan Public Act 51 "the money we use to fix potholes, do snowplowing and pavement markings," all comes from the state. But his graph shows a gap between income and expense that began to open in 2005, grew through 2016, and didn't close until 2017. "It's just beginning to get back, with the additional money the state put into the road fund [in 2015]," Hupy says. "But there is all this deferred maintenance that didn't get done."
"You're always going to have potholes," says city road engineer Nick Hutchinson. "Potholes are caused by moisture getting under the pavement and then freezing and thawing. When it freezes, it expands. When it melts, it contracts. You do that enough times, you've got a pothole. It's not a material deficiency. It's inevitable."
They were especially bad this spring because of the harsh winter, says public works manager Molly Maciejewski. The city used some of the increased funding to rent additional equipment and put on a second pothole-patching crew. By May, they'd already shoveled 525 tons of cold patch. "Last year, it was 397."
As they do every summer, contractors are now at work on longer-term repair and reconstruction projects. But this year they're also doing more preventive maintenance.
"Like many communities in the state and the county, we were using a 'worst first' philosophy," says Hutchinson: "You pave them, you
let them deteriorate until they're junk, and then you take the worst ones and you go out and do the whole thing again."
Not anymore. "The new catchphrase is 'the right fix at the right time,'" says Hutchinson.
"But to do that, you sometimes have to have the backbone to leave that worst road lie a little longer," says Hupy. "That's where the rub comes."
The preventive approach includes a new process. Developed in South Africa's Cape Province, "Cape seals" are similar to the chip seals seen on many rural roads--"we put down a level of emulsified asphalt like a tar and then dump stones on top of that and then roll it down so it seals those stones in," says Hutchinson. The difference is a thin asphalt topcoat that makes it more water-resistant.
Since May, contractors have applied Cape seals to three miles of major streets, and "microseal" top coated another ten miles. City engineer Dave Dykman emails that they're now working on prep work for another eight miles, though "due to the contractor's current workload capacity these treatments likely won't occur until next construction season."
"The reason we can do many more miles ... is that those treatments are much less expensive" than repaving or building a street, Hutchinson says. The tradeoff is that the preventive treatments don't last nearly as long--and can only be used on streets that aren't too far gone. That means putting some of the worst streets on hold to extend the lives of others.
"The complaints that we're going to hear are going to be from those roads that are down at the bottom of the pile," says Hutchinson. "We'll get to them eventually, but they're going to stay down at the bottom of the pile a little bit longer." But the preventive strategy should cost less in the long run, and the system as a whole should steadily get better.
"There's going to be a noticeable difference," Hutchinson promises. "We're going to be focusing on some of our residential streets. We have over 300 miles of roads in the city. About 100 are major streets. The remaining 200 are residential streets, and we've got a lot of catching up to do on those." To help with that, council voted in May to pull more than $4 million from reserves to accelerate construction.
Roads are rated on a ten-point scale. Only about half of Ann Arbor's are rated seven or better now. Council has set a goal of getting 80 percent to that level by 2025.
"That's a very, very, very ambitious goal," says Hutchinson. "Whether we have the money to actually do that is what it comes down to."
"Whether we get there or not depends on what happens to this blue trend line," adds Hupy, referring to Act 51 funding. "The state still has to take action to continue the funding. It's only for one more year."
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