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Fact check: Are Lansing roads getting better?

Pothole photo
The Tire Zoo
flickr creative commons

The Claim:

"I'm pleased to report that the average PASER rating, which is the industry standard, measuring the condition of roads has increased from previous years."
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor

WKAR's rating: True, although the increase is very slight and most city-owned roads remain in poor condition.

Peak pothole season is upon us as streets freeze and thaw and Mayor Andy Schor used his State of the City address last week to spotlight the condition of Lansing's roads.

Specifically, he pointed to some good news: The average rating of roads under an industry-wide system has improved in recent years, he said.

But is that true?

Yes, but with caveats.

How officials rate roads

Officials across the country use the Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating system to rank pavement conditions as poor, fair or good using a scale of one to 10. A ranking of one or two is a "failed" road that needs to be completely reconstructed. A three to four is "poor" while a five to six is "fair." Anything above a seven is considered "good" with a need for only routine maintenance like crack sealing.

Despite slight ratings uptick, most Lansing roads are in bad shape

In 2021, the more than 400 miles of roads maintained by the city of Lansing got an average rating of 3.6 — a decidedly poor rating up very slightly from 3.36 the year before, according to figures provided by the city.

In 2019, the average rating for those roads was 3.49, up slightly after more than a decade of deterioration.

In 2006, roads maintained by Lansing were solidly in the fair category with an average rating of 5.74. By 2018, that average had dropped to poor at 3.4.

Lansing road ratings
Source: City of Lansing
This chart from Lansing's Public Service Department shows how the average rating of roads maintained by the city has changed over time under the Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating system. Roads ranked under a four are "poor" while those between five and six are "fair." Any score above a seven is "good."

Lansing officials point to decades of underfunding

Lansing's Public Service Director Andy Kilpatrick says decades of underfunding is largely to blame, and he acknowledges that recent gains have been negligible.

"I wouldn't say this is necessarily a long-term trend," Kilpatrick said of improved road scores. "If you see a couple tenths of a point increase one year, that doesn't mean that next year, it's not going to go back down. So I think we're at a point where we're now stable with that rating. But it will take a number of years before I could definitively say, 'Yeah, the average condition of our roads is increasing.'"

City engineer Ann Parry noted in an email that pavement scores may have improved slightly, in part, because Lansing roads were so bad to begin with.

City roads 'can't get much worse'

"They can’t get much worse, so any effort we put in has an effect," she wrote.

Perry also pointed to bumps in local, state and federal funding and said the city's experimented with new patching techniques while prioritizing streets that can be repaired in the most cost-effective manner.

Poor roads take more money to bring to good condition than fair ones and Kilpatrick estimated Lansing would need $10 million to $15 million more each year over the next decade to bring most roads to fair condition.

"It could drop back down to the same level we're currently spending once those roads are back up into the fair range," he said.

Lansing has budgeted more than $7 million for capital improvements, which includes road repairs, in the current fiscal year, and Schor is considering asking the City Council to raise that total by $150,000 in the next budget cycle, Kilpatrick said.

Mayor acknowledges road conditions are still far from acceptable

During his speech last week, Schor acknowledged that Lansing's pockmarked pavement still needs a lot of improvement.

"Although we certainly have a long way to go to reach what anyone would call an overall acceptable condition, it's reassuring to see that the additional dollars are just starting to make a measurable impact," said Schor, who took office in 2018.

Kilpatrick says he's somewhat optimistic, because the city has resumed sewer separation work that it paused in 2010 amid the aftermath of the Great Recession. That federally-mandated project has a positive impact on road quality because the city replaces the roads above pipes when workers go in to separate storm-water and sewage pipes.

Kilpatrick also noted that the Lansing Board of Water & Light is picking up the pace of water main repairs, leading to a few more miles of roads being replaced each year.

Lansing's local roads are worse than the state average

Across Michigan, local roads are in worse shape than county-maintained roads and state and federal highways and trunklines.

Nonetheless, Lansing's streets are in even worse shape than other roads maintained by cities and villages across the state.

About 58% of Lansing-maintained roads were in poor condition compared to 49% of all local roads across Michigan, according to 2019 data from Michigan's Transportation Asset Management Council.

Local money for Lansing roads comes from sewer fees, property taxes and the city's general fund. Cities also get a cut of a state fund furnished by the gas tax and vehicle registrations, although some critics say the formula for distributing that money privileges rural communities over urban areas like Lansing.

State gas tax holiday could affect road funding

Some of that state funding could be held up if Michigan suspends its 27-cent-a-gallon gas tax for six months. That proposal, which has cleared the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, would cost cities and villages across the state $142 million in road and bridge funding, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

Republicans say the state could backfill those road-funding losses with surplus funds and federal stimulus dollars.

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