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Published: Friday, 1/17/2003

Ohio fares well, Michigan slips in interstate report

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Pavement and bridges on Ohio's interstate highways are in better shape than the national average, but Michigan's interstates are among the nation's worst, according to a report issued yesterday by a transportation research organization.

The Road Information Program, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, reported that Michigan had the highest proportion, 21 percent, of its interstate bridges rated as structurally deficient, and the 13 percent of interstate pavements rated poor by the state was the fifth highest in the country.

And despite Michigan's annual road-repair spending of more than $1 billion - and occasionally exceeding $1.5 billion - the report found that bridge and pavement conditions on Michigan's interstates deteriorated between 1996 and 2001.

Stephanie Litaker, acting communications director for the Michigan Department of Transportation, denounced the report as misleading and unduly alarmist. Bridges rated structurally deficient, she said, include structures that show cosmetic deterioration but are still safe for traffic.

“The numbers are valid, but the way they are presented would lead one to believe our bridges and pavements are worse than they are,” Ms. Litaker said, adding later, “If the bridges were dangerous, we would close them immediately.”

Gary Naeyaert, a former MDOT spokesman who now represents the Michigan Road Builders' Association, said the report “confirms that even though we've made progress in recent years, road and bridge improvements are still sorely needed in the state.”

TRIP, whose main support comes from construction contractors, consultants, and labor unions, used its findings primarily to promote increased highway spending in future federal transportation programs.

State-to-state comparisons may not be valid because of differences in the way states assess highway conditions, the report said.

Congress is scheduled this year to consider legislation renewing or replacing the current federal transportation program, which expires at year's end.

Ever-growing traffic is threatening to choke the interstate system, which has been a major economic asset for the United States since its creation in 1956 and primary construction during the ensuing two decades, the TRIP report said. Congestion on Ohio's urban interstates is fourth-worst in the country, the report said.

The 58 percent that were “significantly” or “severely” congested in 2001 ranks Ohio better than only Minnesota, 76 percent; Maryland, 72 percent, and California, 69 percent. Michigan's urban congestion matched the national average of 41 percent, TRIP said.

Other Ohio data in the report showed that 90 percent of the state's interstate pavement was listed as “good” in 2001, up from 72 percent in 1996, and that during those five years the percentage of Ohio interstate bridges rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete declined from 24 percent to 18 percent.

“That improvement is not by accident,” said Brian Cunningham, a spokesman at ODOT headquarters in Columbus. “It reflects a concerted effort by the department to identify where we needed to focus our resources.”

Mr. Cunningham noted that rating a bridge as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete does not make it unsafe. The latter category, he said, means that a span does not meet all current engineering standards.

The TRIP report considered only bridges and pavements on interstate highways, which it noted carry 25 percent of U.S. traffic despite representing just 2.5 percent of the nation's road mileage.

In Ohio, interstates account for 11 percent of state-maintained roadways but handle 40 percent of traffic, Mr. Cunningham said.

Ms. Litaker said the interstate-only focus was a further flaw in the report, since nearly 9,000 miles of Michigan's 10,000-mile state network are ignored.

In recent years, MDOT has had major construction projects on its U.S. 23, U.S. 127, and U.S. 131 freeways, along with several Detroit freeways that are not interstates.

“We have improved over 3,300 miles of roadway in Michigan during the last five years,” Ms. Litaker said.

“We can't focus solely on the interstates and completely neglect the nonfreeways.”



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