Q & A on the Rationalization Process

These questions and answers are supplied as information about the proposed rationalization process for Michigan’s roads (the "jurisdiction" issue).

Q. When did we start working on the "rationalization" process?

A. During the summer of 1997, and through the leadership of Governor John Engler, the Michigan legislature passed much of the comprehensive "Build Michigan II" plan, which was the most sweeping transportation package introduced in 50 years. This plan provided for an increased investment in Michigan’s roads of $300 million per year. Additionally, we are still on target to get roughly an additional $200 million increase in federal aid for Michigan through the reauthorization of ISTEA at the federal level. At the center of the Build Michigan II plan was the proposal to reform the system and redefine responsibility for Michigan’s primary roads between all public road agencies in the state (M·DOT, counties, cities/villages). This redefinition of responsibilities has been referred to by the department as the "rationalization" process for Michigan’s roads.

Q. What do you mean when you call it the "rationalization" of our roads?

A. Our current system of dividing road responsibility is balkanized, at best. The rationalization process will make more sense out of the more than a dozen functional classifications for roads in the state. What M·DOT proposes is that we take a close look at all of Michigan’s roads, update the functional classification of these roads, and then ask which unit of government is the most appropriate to maintain each of these roads. This "technical review" of the system is the first step in the rationalization process.

Michigan’s system of dividing up responsibilities for roads dates back to the late 1800's. There have been many changes in Michigan in the last one hundred years, and we should periodically review and revise our system of assigning responsibility for our roads. Jurisdictional changes have been made in a piecemeal fashion over the years, and this is a unique opportunity for us to engage in a comprehensive review of the system.

Q. Why do we even need to discuss who has responsibility for Michigan’s roads?

A. The funding distribution formula in Public Act 51, the state law that divides funding for Michigan’s public road agencies, will "sunset," or expire, on September 30, 1998. As part of the "Build Michigan II" plan approved by the legislature in the summer of 1997, a law was passed requiring public road agencies to come to a voluntary agreement on a new funding distribution formula to replace the current formula in Act 51 no later than September 30, 1998. A provision of this bill is that all local road agencies will experience a 20% reduction in state funding if a new funding distribution formula is not agreed upon by that date. Prior to determining a new funding formula, it makes sense to conduct this technical review and re-assign responsibility for Michigan’s most important roads.

Q. What to you mean by a "re-definition of responsibility" for Michigan roads?

A. There are roughly 119,000 miles of roads in Michigan, with responsibility for these roads currently divided by the state (9,600 miles), counties (88,200 miles), and cities (20,300 miles). Notwithstanding historic definitions that lead us to 13 different road categories, there are basically two types of roads in the state, which are the high volume and low volume roads. The high-volume road system are those roads that serve as Michigan’s economic backbone by moving people and goods from one area to another. These roads carry a great deal of the vehicle traffic in the state, as well as the vast majority of commercial traffic. M·DOT believes that these roads should become be the responsibility of the state. Local roads are those roads that primarily provide access from our homes to our high-volume roads, and these roads should remain the responsibility of local road agencies.

Q. How does Michigan currently compare to other states in this regard?

A. Michigan ranks 48th in percentage of roads under the jurisdiction of the state as compared to all roads system in the state (8%). This proposal doubles the percentage and places Michigan right in the middle along with other states like New York, Georgia, Tennessee and Ohio.

Q. What is the overriding goal of the rationalization process?

A. The goal for the rationalization process is to ask all road agencies to focus on two systems -- those most important to supporting and expanding our economy and providing personal mobility, and those whose primary function is to provide access to land and homes. During negotiations for Build Michigan II, M·DOT proposed a statewide system of roughly 33,000 miles that included all roads eligible for federal aid. Review, discussion and further negotiations brought us to look at an approximately 18,000 mile system that concentrates on identifying Michigan’s "Commercial Backbone" network. This is substantially the system being proposed today as a starting point for our discussions.

This commercial backbone system of high volume routes passes through cities, townships and counties to form an interconnected system to reach markets across and through the state. Developing improvement plans along a corridor, without regard to jurisdiction, will eliminate the current piecemeal approach to road improvements. Consolidating investments along a corridor or within a geographic area will result in lower administrative costs and contractor prices. In addition to achieving economies of scale in consolidating construction work along a corridor, and the impact of competition in the system, this proposal simplifies the designation of roads in the state. Roads will be consistently numbered along their entire length, so that a motorist can follow a route from the state line across several jurisdictions. An added advantage is that these roads will be placed on a state map. Consistent route numbering and mapping also helps simplify detour routing.

Q. How will VMT (vehicle miles traveled) be impacted by this rationalization?

A. Under the current system, the state is responsible for only 8% of the roads, but these ultra-high volume roads account for 53% of the total traffic and 70% of the commercial traffic in the state. Under the proposal, the state would be responsible for roughly 16% of the roads, with these roads carrying 70% of the total traffic and 85% of the commercial traffic. Also, 84% of Michigan’s population currently resides within two miles of a road on the state trunkline system and under this proposal 95% of the population will live within two miles of a state road.

Q. What is the primary benefit of the rationalization process?

A. Responsibility for Michigan’s roads will be more easily understood and efficiencies will benefit motorists. Decisions about capital improvements and maintenance on the high-volume system should be made based on programmatic concerns, on a corridor or route basis. Efficiencies enter the equation when you competitively bid maintenance contracts for large stretches of roads that cross county & city boundaries. Local government will remain responsible solely for local access roads, no longer torn between the pressures of maintaining the high-volume system and building the local access road system.

Q. How will transportation dollars be divided between the state, counties and cities?

A. Our primary goal at this time is to conduct the technical review of the system, update functional classifications and assign responsibility for all of our roads at the most appropriate level of government. It is important that we conduct this review without getting tied up in a number of dollars and cents issues, and that is why M·DOT has not proposed a new funding distribution formula at this time. The funding distribution formula is a very important issue, and we expect to address this issue in 1998, once the technical review of the system has been completed.

Q. Do you really expect local road agencies to discuss the transfer of responsibility for roads without discussing the potential impact on the funding distribution formula?

A. M·DOT has consistently adhered to the position that "money should follow the road" in this regard. What this means is that the amount of money actually spent on a stretch of road, regardless of classification or jurisdictional responsibility, should remain consistent in the future. It appears that changes to the current law in this regard will be necessary in order to facilitate the transfer of roads between road agencies.

Q. What about federal aid? Will federal dollars still be spent on local roads?

A. Historically, M·DOT has shared roughly 25% of all federal aid with local road agencies. If the system proposed by M·DOT were to be adopted there would still be roughly 14,000 miles of road on the local system that will remain eligible for federal aid. It would still be possible for federal aid to be spent on these roads.

The question we face is in what manner should federal aid be spent most efficiently and effectively on Michigan’s roads? The high cost of federal compliance (up to 25%) means that most road agencies rarely see a full dollar’s worth of improvements for each dollar spent. Funding a number of small and mid-sized projects may be less effective than funding high-impact projects on major roads.

Q. Will M·DOT assume the debt burden for roads that are transferred to the state?

A. M·DOT would assume any debt balance for roads that are transferred to the state, provided that this debt was in the form of transportation bonds. We would need to discuss the possibility of M·DOT assuming the debt balance for local debt from millages and/or special assessments.

Q. How will M·DOT assure that there will be local input on decisions about roads? And what about equity between different areas of the state?

A. Local input is an important part of the program development process. In fact, federal regulations require public involvement in plans for both Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) and the state. While it is difficult to address the perception that every part of the state feels short-changed when it comes to transportation funding and projects, equity considerations will be taken into account in developing projects and programs that meet well-defined needs. MPO’s will be asked, however, to develop mutual priorities that are route and corridor-based, and not to focus on political boundaries.

Also, nobody will have to make their way to Lansing to discuss Michigan’s high-volume roads. Through M·DOT’s reorganization, there will be 7 regional offices and roughly 25 Transportation Service Centers (TSCs) located throughout the state. It is through this "de-centralized" department that many services and functions will be delivered, including contract management and maintenance oversight. These TSCs will be staffed to address the questions and concerns of motorists, local government officials, business partners and local media in their area. M·DOT will be visible and responsive when it comes to the state road system.

Q. Who would have responsibility for permits, determination of speed limits, signage, curb cuts and other local issues for roads that are transferred to the state?

A. We have heard differing opinions from many local road agencies as to this issue. M·DOT believes strongly that there must continue to be local input into decisions about traffic controls, truck routes, speed limits, permits, and other issues. Some local road agencies would like to retain decision-making authority, and the liability associated with that responsibility, while others would not. This is one of the issues that must be fully addressed, and we will work for a proper balance between statewide system objectives and local quality of life concerns.

Q. Would M·DOT contract for routine maintenance on the expanded state system?

A. M·DOT currently contracts with more than 60 county road commissions and over 150 cities to provide routine maintenance on roads currently under M·DOT’s jurisdiction, and this relationship would expand with a larger state system. M·DOT plans to pursue competitive bidding for routine maintenance contracts that go beyond the artificial boundaries of city limits and county lines, with an emphasis on corridor and route projects. It is expected that counties, cities and perhaps private sector firms will bid for this work. Competition brings efficiencies, accountability, adherence to performance standards, and incentives for innovation into the road maintenance industry.

Q. Where do I call to ask questions about federal functional classifications or to receive additional copies of the proposed jurisdictional maps?

A. Again, the maps were provided as a point of reference, and are expected to generate questions and discussion. M·DOT has set up a "help desk" to respond to routine inquiries and provide assistance. The toll free number for the help desk is 1-888-898-ROAD (898-7623).