During the most recent gubernatorial election, then-candidate and now Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talked about the need to fix the state's aging roads and infrastructure.
While the jury is still out on if she will be able to hold to those campaign promises, one thing is for certain is the roads in Michigan need some TLC. That also is true in the Cadillac area.
The issues that are facing road commissions downstate in more urban areas are different than those faced by the commissions in northern Michigan. The Cadillac News went to road commission managers from Missaukee, Osceola and Wexford counties to see what some of the big issues are that hinder the agencies' ability to fix the area's local roads.
Kelly Bekken said his biggest issue is likely not a surprise to anyone who talks with the long-tenured Missaukee County Road Commission manager.
He said the majority of his road issues are on the roads that are the haul routes for the farming industry in the county. With the location of the farms and the distance to the fields they farm, it involves both primary and local road system.
Although the primary road system is funded with transportation dollars from state and federal dollars for major repairs, Bekken said the local road system is a different story.
"Local road reconstruction is funded by 75% township money and 25% road commission funds. We receive no additional state or federal money for local roads. An average cost of widening a road to 28 feet with 14-foot driving lanes, stabilizing the base, and then paving with 3 inches of asphalt is approximately $300,000 a mile," Bekken said. "That is well beyond the capability of most townships."
He said these farm routes receive extremely heavy, wide and repetitious loads. He said recently the county completed its biannual bridge inspections and the result is three bridges will be restricted because they are failing due to extreme loading. As a result, the road commission is directing most of its future funding to deal with the issue.
The $1 million questions are how long will these improvements last with the overloading, Bekken said. That question also is having to be asked regarding not just the bridges, but also the local roads themselves.
"What that means is we have to rebuild the roads to a higher standard, but you are talking big money. Primary roads get federal funding but it is the local roads where the townships are responsible," he said. "The townships don't have $300,000 a mile to build a road for a farmer."
One option is to ask voters to approve a county-wide road millage, but he is uncertain if that would get passed by voters especially since there are some township that already has a road millage or recently had one.
When it comes to the local roads of Osceola County, road commission manager Luke Houlton said his biggest hurdle is not the deteriorating road system, funding, which has been increasing, or materials. It's getting people to work.
As a result of that lack of workers, especially during the summer construction season, some of the things residents want sometimes get delayed.
"Our biggest hurdle is our gravel roads. They are suffering because we are spread out farther than we have been," he said.
He said part of the issue is the fact that he needs some of the seasonal workers to have Commercial Driver's Licenses and that means competing with other companies who may be offering full-time employment. He also said if a person has a CDL and they don't have a full-time job, there is a reason for that.
That means his summer laborers can only do things such as mowing or cold patch fills and when they want to do gravel road work, the 16 full-time employees have to be pulled off other projects.
"I think the issue for us is really staffing and finding good dependable help, especially part-time. We talked about increasing our crew but we don't have the state maintenance contract so it is a crapshoot if we plow snow in the winter," Houlton said. "In the dead of winter, there not much we can do if it doesn't snow. So there is a concern with too many bodies around in the winter."
Houlton said the staffing isn't just something his agency is dealing with as the contractors are facing similar issues. He said there is good money to be made in that line of work and you have the winters off but when you are working it is long days and hard work.
He also said he doesn't look at things in terms of where are the worst roads but rather is his agency able to keep the gravel roads bladed, the grass mowed and the dust cut back all while doing all the construction projects on task which have been steadily increasing as funding amounts have risen.
The Wexford County Road Commission was unable to respond by press time but is willing to discuss the topic. Once the discussion is had a follow-up story will be placed in a future edition of the Cadillac News, likely next week.