Fix the damn roads: Why politicians should prioritize potholes


Gretchen Whitmer first won election to Michigan’s governorship four years ago on a simple promise: she would fix the damn roads. For Whitmer, and Michigan policymakers before her, this has meant repairing existing roads before building new ones. Unfortunately, not all politicians define “fixing” the same way.

Flickr photo by _ChrisUK

In November 2018, Gretchen Whitmer was elected to a resounding victory as Michigan’s governor. Her eponymous slogan? Fix the damn roads. Responding to widespread discontent with even the most basic public service delivery being inadequate—as most infamously visualized by the poisoning of Flint’s residents due to state-level mismanagement of the city’s water supply—Whitmer prioritized a public service need that all Michiganders can relate to: potholes. From bikes getting repeated flat tires, to spilling that coffee on the bus, to personal experience attending holidays and family reunions mostly in the Mitten State’s southwest corner, I can attest that these are particularly jarring. 

Prior to Whitmer’s election, Michigan’s paving policies were improving, even as the pavement itself was deteriorating. As outlined in our 2019 report Repair Priorities, the percentage of roads in the state in poor condition had more than doubled between 2009 and 2017 from 11 percent to 24 percent. However, Michigan had also begun making the necessary policy changes to stop this decline. Between 2009 and 2014, 54 percent of the state’s capital spending on state-managed roads had gone to repair, vastly dwarfing the 8 percent devoted to expansion.

From 2009 to 2017, only 524 lane-miles were built across the entire state. Although its upsides weren’t clear at the time, this relative restraint—similarly-sized Georgia added over 10,000 lane miles during those same eight years—will provide fiscal, climate, and comfort dividends to Michigan residents for years in the future. With less concrete and asphalt, the state’s budget will be less strained by already-pressing maintenance needs, emissions-intense driving and land-use patterns will be less-incentivized, and trips that do need to be taken by car will be less jostling for both drivers and their wallets.

Thankfully, Whitmer seems to have continued this trend, turning her “Fix the damn roads” slogan into a fix-it-first policy. In press releases about individual projects and one-pagers about broader strategy, the focus is not on road capacity but road quality. The way her office touts their efforts is not discussing reductions in commute times that will almost certainly be temporary due to the new driving they induce, but in the number of lane-miles and bridges repaired (predicted by Whitmer to be 16,000 and 1,200 respectively by the end of the year). By applying the methodology used in Repair Priorities, you can see that two years into her term—the most recent statistics available—there were only 88 more lane miles in the state than in 2017. This is an even slower rate of increase than 2009 to 2017.

Fix or expand?

Unfortunately, this is not the only way to interpret fixing roads. Close to where I grew up in Northern Virginia, Danica Roem ran for Virginia’s House of Delegates one year before Whitmer ran for Governor, her yard signs centering on one particular policy demand: Fix Route 28 Now. In contrast to Whitmer, Roem was not primarily interested in fixing road conditions, but road congestion. Roem has worked to widen this principal arterial, replace stop lights with intersection designs that lead to more smoothly-flowing traffic, and even to create an entirely new bypass version of Route 28. 

Roem does mention the importance of walking and biking elements in these expansion projects, and she worked to increase commuter bus service and expand commuter railroad farther into D.C.’s suburbs and exurbs. However, benefits from these efforts are incommensurate to the drawbacks of fixing a road by widening it. More lanes and higher vehicle speeds make walking and biking more dangerous. At the same time, the added lanes encourage the type of sprawling land-use that makes walking or biking less convenient to complete everyday tasks. That means these tasks—grocery shopping, picking up and dropping off children, and doctor appointments among them—aren’t possible to complete via commuter bus or rail. 

These policy positions, meticulously and diligently pursued by Roem over the past five years, are not uncommon. Her equating of fixing to widening, and prioritization of focused capacity over broader conditions, is in line with actions being taken across the country. In Virginia itself, billions are being spent on lane-mile increases much more drastic than that of Route 28, which I can personally attest to being as infuriatingly congested as Roem describes it. In Wisconsin, the state DOT recently announced plans to widen an interstate through downtown Milwaukee. In Texas, the same thing is happening in Austin, and TxDOT is even fighting to stop a complete streets project in San Antonio by regaining control of the street in question. In California, work is about to finish on a freeway connecting project that cuts through neighborhoods in the heart of Bakersfield. Furthermore, all of these states saw an increase in the share of their roads that were in poor condition from 2009 to 2017. For Wisconsin and California, nearly one-third and one-half, respectively, of roads across the state were in poor condition. 

comic illustration
States can use billions of federal dollars to address repair, but they often choose to spend the funds on expansion instead.

The approach creates a cycle. Roads fall into disrepair because they require maintenance. States ask the federal government for funds to address their repair needs. Funds that could be used for maintenance are instead spent on expansion. Expansion creates more lane miles in need of maintenance. States notice their need for repair has only grown, and ask for more federal funding.

This is by no means the only cost of an expansion-first road policy. In the last three decades, highway construction has displaced more than 200,000 people across the country from their homes. As RMI, NRDC, and Transportation for America’s SHIFT calculator helps measure, additional lane-miles lead to more driving (or more vehicle miles traveled) at a time when transportation is responsible for the plurality of greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that much of this construction has occurred in communities of color means that the members of these historically-disadvantaged populations who aren’t displaced then bear the brunt of the increased pollution. And the congestion relief that is the end of these pernicious means is painfully temporary

There’s a better way

To rub salt in the wound, states have the opportunity to relieve congestion by investing in expanding other modes of transportation. Ironically, Virginia’s efforts to do this are exemplary. It is over a decade into a dedicated effort to expand and improve passenger rail service that has netted record ridership even after the COVID-19 pandemic, and has started a popular public intercity passenger bus service, connecting smaller and rural communities across the Commonwealth. If the state pursued a fix-it-first road policy, the money saved from road expansions left on the drawing board would be enough to improve and expand these multimodal services even more and reduce stress on roadways that are already in bad shape. 

Michigan’s recognition of this fact seems to be vindicating itself. 2020 statistics show that only 21.5 percent of the state’s roads were rated as being in poor condition, an improvement of nearly three percentage points in as many years. Other states are noticing as well; California recently canceled a highway expansion that had been planned for a decade, freeing up funds to go to repairing roads and improving other modes of transportation. And although the funds meant to go to each individual project may be miniscule, every decision to prioritize repair is crucial. 

If continued at the rate of her first term, Governor Whitmer would need more than six decades—or about sixteen terms—to repair all of Michigan’s roads. That’s quite a few roadways in need of attention. However, Whitmer and others like her have made a step in the right direction by noticing that “fixing” roads by expanding them isn’t prudent policy. Politicians who don’t fix-it-first aren’t just ignoring the potholes that already exist, they’re digging more for future generations to fill in.

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