Michigan Highways: Since 1997.

Michigan Highways website header graphic
M-22 & M-109 junction route signage in Glen Arbor, Michigan


Rethinking Michigan's Highway System

The pilot "Rationalization Process" was actually the second plan to enlarge the state highway system in the late-1990s. As a part of former-Gov. John Engler's "Build Michigan II" program introduced in May 1997, it was proposed that the state should assume responsibility for the entire system of federal-aid roads in Michigan, which amount to 23,500 miles of roadway. When compared to the present 9,600-mile system, the proposal ruffled a few feathers among county and local road agencies across the state. The state legislature, in the end, elected not to enact that portion of the "Build Michigan II" program.

Even though the original proposal was not enacted—only the gas tax hike portion was—former-Gov. Engler continued to press that 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" should be maintained as a part of the system of state highways. While the Department of Transportation has been the traditional custodian of these routes, radical changes have taken place since the state highway system was laid out almost 80 years ago. According to MDOT:

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.

To continue the course of transferring high-priority, commercially-significant roads to state control, a "Rationalization Process" began in the summer of 1997 to, as MDOT stated, "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." The portions of the current state highway system which were identified as such were to be retained. The portions of local and county roads and streets which were identified as serving a "high-level, economic purpose" were identified as prime candidates for transfer to state control. On the other hand, the portions of the current state highway system which were deemed to not serve the high-level purpose were identified as candidates to be transferred back to local control. In the end, MDOT hoped 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."

The Rationalization Process began with the distribution of maps to local road agencies, showing the various classifications of each road and highway in each local jurisdiction. The local road agencies (county road commissions, municipal departments of public works, etc.) reviewed the maps and suggested changes, additions and deletions to the highway systems. From there, the process continued with negotiations between the local agencies and the transportation department as to which local roads and streets will be transferred to the state, and which state highways will be turned back to local control.

As a part of this process, the Michigan Department of Transportation established a "Criteria for Commercial Backbone Routes" as follows:

  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.

After the first "pilot" transfers were effected through Rationalization in 1998, no further transfers occurred and the program was quietly shelved.

Next Page: The First Transfers
Jump to: Jurisdictional Transfers 1998-2002

Additional Information

Unfortunately, with the 2002 reorganization of the MDOT website and its migration into the "michigan.gov" format, some of the Rationalization-related information has disappeared. Below are links to the remaining information: