Responsibility for Michigan's Roads

A Proposal for Jurisdictional Reform


When Governor Engler introduced Build Michigan II on May 8, 1997, part of his proposal included the state assumption of responsibility for the entire system of "federal-aid" roads in Michigan. This would have involved adding approximately 23,500 miles to the 9,600 miles of road currently under state jurisdiction. This particular jurisdictional reform was not enacted by the state legislature. However, the proposal generated much useful debate about the relative roles of the state, counties and cities(1) in answering the question, "Who should have responsibility for which roads?"

The essence of Governor Engler's proposal is that the state should have responsibility for the highest level of roads. He has described these as roads which "support the economy -- a backbone system of roads that allow people to get to work and that get raw materials to factories and products to market." Historically, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has given these roads the label "state trunkline" or simply, trunkline. One dictionary defines the word trunkline as a "major, long-distance, transportation line." Many roads currently on the state trunkline system obviously meet this definition. Some examples are the Interstate and other freeways; U.S. highways 2, 10, and 12; and state, M-routes 28 and 46.

There have been major changes in the patterns of workplace and residential development since these highways were built. Workers no longer commute to a central city location from homes a relatively short distance away. Instead, commuting distances have increased dramatically and offices, factories and distribution centers have spread out into suburban and rural land areas. Factories no longer maintain huge inventories of parts on their premises; rather, they rely upon "just-in-time" delivery of parts from suppliers in dispersed locations.

In order to better serve these patterns of development, the state system needs to be expanded beyond its current, relatively sparse coverage. A comparison to other states reinforces this recommendation. If all fifty states are ranked according to percentage of state-owned roads versus all public roads in the state, Michigan is close to the bottom, at 48th. Michigan has approximately 119,000 miles of public road, of which 9,600 miles are current state trunkline. Thus, eight percent of Michigan's roads are state-owned, well below the national average of 23 %.

Goals for the Proposal

This proposal aims to identify precisely those portions of the current highway, roads, and streets which serve high-level, economic purposes for either the state as a whole or for a region of the state. Once identified, these roads will be considered for transfer to state jurisdiction. Roads which do not serve such a high-level, economic purpose could be said to serve local needs. Such roads will remain under local jurisdiction. Moreover, this review will reveal certain roads which are currently on the state trunkline system but which no longer serve a statewide or regional purpose. These roads will be considered for transfer to local jurisdiction, either at the county or the city level, depending upon location.

This jurisdictional reform will result in a seamless network of the most economically important roads, all under state responsibility. The benefits of this arrangement include the "economies of scale" that can be applied to administering and maintaining the system, and the ability to use a systematic approach to scheduling improvements.

Jurisdictional reform is not intended to eliminate all changes in jurisdiction that occur at "invisible" or "artificial" boundaries. There will always be roads which remain under county jurisdiction and which cross from one county into another. In these cases, jurisdiction will change at the county line. There will also remain county roads which cross city limits -- the jurisdiction of these roads may or may not change at the city limit to city streets.

In addition, jurisdictional changes along the same road will not necessarily be eliminated by this proposal. Besides crossing invisible boundaries, a road may have a differing function along its entire length. Anyone who has driven county roads extensively can think of an example such as the following: the same road covers the length of the whole county, but has varying development and traffic levels at different points. Such a road may serve a high-level, economic purpose for only part of its length. For this segment, such a road may function as part of a route, when combined with other high-level roads or road segments. If county or city road segments combine to form a high-level route, just those segments may be considered for transfer to the state system.

There is another important consideration. The density of development varies considerably throughout Michigan, with the heaviest concentration existing in the southeast portion of the lower peninsula. Yet, there has always been a level of geographic equity in the establishment of state trunkline routes. The goal has been to provide everyone with reasonable access to a state trunkline, regardless of where they live. This goal should be maintained. As a result of this process, the definition of "reasonable access" may change, more or less proportionately, for everyone in Michigan.



The methodology for conducting this rationalization of Michigan's highway system and making appropriate jurisdictional reforms consists of local review of the enclosed preliminary map, a locally written response to the map, and a process for finding consensus between the state and local agencies regarding jurisdictional reform.

The Enclosed Map

It is said that "a picture is worth a thousand words." For the purposes of this proposal, this could be paraphrased as "a map may be worth more than a thousand words." The map which accompanies this paper needs some words of explanation. However, it provides examples of all or most of the types of routes discussed above. These are shown for an area with which you are familiar. The concepts discussed here are more relevant when examined in the context of the roads which you drive every day.

The map distinguishes between federal-aid eligibility and the proposed jurisdictional system. The map legend shows two categories of current state trunkline: bright pink represents routes which appear to serve a statewide or regional purpose, and light orange shows routes that may have a local function. There are three colors to represent jurisdictionally local(2) (county/city) routes. Both purple and blue routes are eligible for federal-aid. Federal-aid eligibility is based upon a federal functional classification system. Federal-aid roads vary considerably in their characteristics; they do not all function at the same level. For this reason, the federal-aid roads under county or city jurisdiction are differentiated into two types. The routes shown in purple have been tentatively identified as "Commercial Backbone Routes." These routes appear to serve a more high-level, economic purpose on at least a regional basis. The blue routes, on the other hand, appear to serve more localized needs. The gray routes also appear to have a predominantly local function, in that they do not have a high enough federal classification to be eligible for federal-aid.

Selecting the Commercial Backbone Routes

The primary purpose of the mapping category, "Commercial Backbone Route," is to provide a starting point for discussions about jurisdictional reform. These routes were selected according to the criteria given below. The criteria themselves were chosen in order to produce an expansion of the state trunkline system which would meet the goals of Build Michigan II. Yet, there is still a decision to be made as to whether or not a "purple route" really meets these criteria and serves a higher level rather than a local function. The county or city with current jurisdiction over the purple route will make that decision.

Criteria for Commercial Backbone Routes

(1) Routes should be among the heaviest traveled in the county.

(2) Routes should carry a relatively high percentage of commercial travel.

(3) Where possible, routes should avoid exclusively residential areas.

(4) Routes should form a connected system without "stubs," unless stubs are dictated by geographical features or are National Highway System Intermodal Connectors.

(5) Routes should be spaced in a manner consistent with density of development and geographical features.

(6) Where possible, routes should be direct, without sharp angles or curves which pose problems for commercial traffic.

The word "commercial" is used on the maps and throughout this discussion in order to provide a short-cut way of saying "a route which serves a high-level, economic purpose for either the state as a whole or for a region of the state." However, this phrasing also relates to a previous transportation project, the development of a Secondary Commercial Network, or SCN. The SCN has been in development for several years. It incorporates a set of county roads and city streets which have already been improved to the all season standard, often with funding from the Transportation Economic Development program. In addition, it identifies routes and route segments which should eventually become all season in order to form a connected network. At the time of writing, thirty-one county road commissions had submitted information to the department identifying their preliminary SCN. When a road is improved to the all season standard, it is capable of carrying truck traffic year-round, without seasonal load restrictions. The ability to serve truck traffic is a prime indicator that a route serves a high-level, economic purpose.


I. Review the enclosed map for general understanding.

II. Identify which roads on the map are under your county's or city's jurisdiction.

III. Where roads or streets under "your" jurisdiction are shown in purple ("Commercial Backbone Routes"), determine whether you agree that this route meets the criteria given above.

V. If you agree that a route meets the Commercial Backbone Route criteria, determine whether you would recommend its transfer to the state trunkline system.

V. If you do not agree that the route meets the Commercial Backbone Route criteria and/or if you would not recommend its transfer to the state trunkline system, write down your reasons.

Regarding the Commercial Backbone Route criteria, the spacing criterion (item #5) had the most subjective application during the preliminary selection process. If you find that a route appears to meet none of the other criteria and you would not recommend its transfer to the state trunkline system, indicate this with a statement such as, "Little or no commercial use; adequate spacing supplied by other routes."

VI. Identify additional routes under your jurisdiction as follows:

A. The route is shown in blue or gray on the map.

B. You can demonstrate that it meets one or more of the Commercial Backbone Route criteria.

C. You would recommend that this route be transferred to the state trunkline system.

Where such routes exist, mark their location on the enclosed map, write down the name(s) of the streets and roads which make up the route, and briefly explain why the route meets the Commercial Backbone Route criteria.

VII. Identify any "possible local function" trunkline or orange roads on your map.

VIII. If the orange road lies within your city limits or county boundary, consider whether it has a high-level, economic function (Commercial Backbone Route criteria) or a local function. Note whether all or part of the orange road is needed to provide continuity with other high-level routes, such as "statewide/regional function" trunkline or commercial routes. Write down your determination.

IX. If your determination regarding an orange road is "local," would you recommend transfer of this route from the state to your jurisdiction? Write down your response.

X. You may also review roads for correct federal-aid designation. For example, does a gray route function at a higher level than that of merely providing access to property? If so, it may qualify to be a blue or even a purple route. On the other hand, a blue route may actually have only a local function or it may represent a "future" route for which construction is no longer planned. In such cases, the route should either be changed to a gray route or deleted from the map altogether. Please see the Additional Resources section at the end of this paper for more information about federal-aid designations.

XI. Prepare a response to this proposal as soon as possible, but no later than November 30, 1997. Include the following in your response:

A. A list and/or a marked up map which shows both the routes which you agree should be transferred to state jurisdiction and those purple or orange routes which you agree should remain under or be transferred to your jurisdiction.

B. A brief written explanation for either adding or deleting routes to the routes suggested for transfer to the state trunkline system (i.e., adding or deleting "purple" routes).

C. A brief written explanation regarding your suggested jurisdiction for any orange roads shown on your map (i.e., whether they should remain on the state trunkline system or be transferred to your jurisdiction).

XII. Your response will be reviewed by the department for consistency with the criteria, particularly with respect to system continuity and connectivity.

XIII. If there is a lack of consensus between your response and the department's analysis, we will begin to meet with each agency involved to reconcile our technical differences. This process will begin as soon as possible once we have received local area analyses.

XIV. The outcome of this jurisdictional review and the subsequent discussions will provide the basis for moving ahead with the transfer process as identified in Act 51, as amended.

Additional Resources

If you have questions or comments regarding the procedure outlined above, we have a toll-free "Help Desk" number: 1-888-898-ROAD (1-888-898-7623). You may also call the staff assigned to the Help Desk directly: Terry Eldred at (517) 373-2221 or Susan Berquist at (517) 335-2929. These numbers will be available 24 hours per day (voicemail after regular business hours).

Additional copies of the enclosed map are available upon request. Other types of maps are also available, such as Act 51 (shows current jurisdictions), National Functional Classification, and Rural Task Force maps. Please call Ms. Susan Berquist at (517) 335-2929 for maps and map information.

Ms. Berquist can also answer any questions you may have about the federal-aid designations of roads in your area. As noted earlier in this paper, the federal-aid eligibility of roads is dependent upon their National Functional Classification. This system is administered by MDOT in accordance with federal criteria and guidelines. Changes to this system require approval by the Federal Highway Administration.

Send marked up maps plus any additional comments and questions you may have to either Mr. Eldred or Ms. Berquist at the following address:

Statewide Planning Section
State Transportation Building
425 West Ottawa Street
P.O. Box 30050
Lansing, Michigan 48909


1. The word "city" or "cities" will be used as convenient shorthand throughout this paper to signify: incorporated city or village.

2. There are two ways in which the word local is used: either to denote jurisdiction -- distinguishing county and city roads (local) from state roads -- or to characterize how a road under any current jurisdiction functions.