News Story

State Data Doesn’t Support Newspaper’s Dire Report On Bridges

Fewer bridges are in 'poor' shape and more are in 'fair' shape

The Detroit Free Press recently published a feature story about bridges in Michigan, reporting that “the poor condition of Michigan’s roads and bridges is reaching a crisis point.” The article said that more than 10% of the state’s bridges are in poor or worse condition and suggested they pose a safety hazard.

Anecdotes in the story portrayed a situation so dire that unusable bridges are dividing some communities in two, forcing long-established businesses to close their doors and driving down local economies.

Michigan does face a perennial struggle to keep its roads and bridges in good shape, but data from an official state organization tells a more positive story.

Each year, the Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council releases a report on the quality of bridges and roads in the state. According to the 2018 edition of the report, the most recently released, the percentage of bridges in “fair” condition has been steadily increasing since 2011. In that year, 45% of bridges were in that category; as of 2018, the number was 51%.

The number of bridges in “poor” condition, meanwhile, has fallen since 2011 and now stands at 11%. “Michigan bridge owners and decision makers have reduced the percentage of bridges in poor condition,” the report said, “while the number of fair bridges has increased and the number of good bridges has decreased.”

The report notes that the last two years have seen a slight increase in the number of “poor” bridges: “Although the trend-line for the poor category was decreasing, in the past two years it has begun to increase, and shows a concerning trend.” But even with this uptick, the number of failing bridges remains below that of previous years.

Christopher Douglas, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan-Flint and member of the Board of Scholars at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, suggested that the Free Press story exaggerated the magnitude of the trends.

“There’s not much of a story here,” he said. “There’s a slight downward trend in ‘poor’ bridges and then a slight increase, but you’re talking about a pretty small change. I think the takeaway is that there’s really no trend in bridge conditions at all.” Between 2017 and 2018, the number of “poor” bridges increased from 1,175 to 1,200.

Douglas said that there might be an issue later, but even this isn’t a cause for despair.

“When you look at bridges in the ‘fair’ condition category, how many of them will turn into ‘poor’ condition bridges in the future?” he said. “If five to 10 years from now a big chunk of those ‘fair’ condition bridges turn into ‘poor’ condition bridges, then we’ve got a big problem. But if that’s not the case, maybe the problem isn’t that severe.”

But according to the Free Press article, bridge deterioration “is reaching a crisis point” and caused by insufficient funding. Wayne County has the highest percentage of bridges in poor condition, at 30%, but “from its meager allotment of state transportation funding, Wayne sets aside just $10 million a year for its bridges,” the article said. County Executive Warren Evans was quoted as saying, “We have over 300 bridges in Wayne County and I gotta tell you our budget for maintaining and repairing them is minuscule.”

According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, Wayne County receives nearly 10 percent of all state dollars going to county road commissions — $86.4 million of $932 million. Wayne County communities also get 16 percent of the state road repair dollars distributed to cities and villages, or $216 million.

“I wouldn’t call these allocations ‘meager,’” said Douglas.

Rather than a lack of funding, Douglas said, oversight was the real issue.

“You have to ask, ‘What is the city spending its money on if it’s not properly maintaining their bridges?’” he said. “Every city is required to have its bridges inspected every year, so the fact that a bridge has degraded to the point where it can’t be used anymore shouldn’t have come as a surprise to that town’s leadership since the inspections happen every year. So the question is why the town didn’t do anything about it before that point was reached.”

Douglas said Michiganders should not fear immediate harm from their bridges.

“No one’s in danger of a bridge collapsing on the road right now,” he said. “As far as I can tell, there’s never been a case in Michigan where a bridge has collapsed and caused injury and death. People shouldn’t be concerned about bridges collapsing. There’s always a concern about the future, but right now it doesn’t seem like there’s an immediate crisis.”

Even after adjusting for inflation, state spending on transportation has never been higher than this year’s $3.64 billion. That number does not include federal dollars in the 2018-19 fiscal year state transportation budget.