Frustration Evident as Saline Township Officials Talk Roads with County Officials

 04/13/2016 - 17:07
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Saline Township Board members listen to a presentation by Roy Townsend of the Washtenaw County Road Commission.

When members of the road commission show up in the spring for the Saline Township Board Meeting it is often well attended and lively and this week’s meeting was no exception. Local citizens expressed disappointment, frustration and sometimes anger about slow or non-existent road repairs, especially for roads near their homes.

The Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC) was well represented, although three of them did not arrive until 45 minutes into the meting. Among those present were Commissioners Bill McFarlane and Barb Fuller, District Forman Kevin Wagenhauser, Managing Director Roy Townsend and Director of Operations Jim Harmon.

In addition to the WCRC representatives, township road committee members Mike Callegari and Tim Dwyer were also at the meeting.

The meeting began with routine issues such as the consent agenda. In addition Superintendent Jim Marion and Recycle Coordinator Mary Gumtow announced the annual Spring Cleanup. The cleanup will be held on May 21 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Township Hall.

Gumtow said that while many items will be accepted for recycling many things will not, including building materials, shingles, cement, batteries and any liquids. Tires are accepted with limitations. The rules are the same as in previous years and can be found on the Township website.

But the main event was a discussion of roads. Residents complained of poor, occasionally impassible and often vehicle-damaging roads while the WCRC representatives complained about their limited resources to deal with the problems.

“I have 145 miles of road to take care of in my district with one grader,” Wagenhauser said.

The problem, they say, is that Michigan ranks 50th of the 50 states in per capita spending on roads. The gas tax was last raised 20 years ago while costs have continued to escalate.

Of course more cars on the road means more people paying gas tax, but increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles offset this gain. And more cars means faster deterioration of roads.

Last year a somewhat complex and confusing ballot proposal to increase spending on roads was resoundingly defeated by the voters. State leaders replaced it with one that is a bit of a sham.

“You probably read about how the state legislature in all their wisdom, passed this road improvement agreement,” McFarlane said. “I assume you’ve heard about that - $1.2 billion and $600 million up front. Well, next year it’s zero. It goes up proportionally to $600 million by 2021.”

The second $600 million is to come from excess in the general fund. McFarlane went on to talk about the lead pipe problem, which is statewide, not just in Flint. This is just one of many future priorities that will compete for funding.

“The point I’m trying to make is that the other $600 million will unlikely be coming into roads,” McFarlane said. “And the people that voted on all this, all of them won’t be in office anyways, so it’ll be the new representatives that will have to try and figure out where to spend that state revenue and it probably won’t be on roads.”

In the meantime, the WCRC is limping along with an inadequate budget. They are hoping to get more funding through a one half-mil added road tax like they did earlier through Public Act 283.

Money raised in this way stays entirely within the county and would be used for already planned road projects. Townsend assured township citizens that they would get back more in road improvements than what they would contribute in extended taxes.

The greatest number of complaints was about Willow Road. Marion said he would like Commissioner Fuller to drive that road and compare it to her own.

“Our local roads are pretty good,” Marion said. “Take Braun Road for instance. This road is an expressway compared to Willow Road. Willow Road is a primary and the money we spend on local roads, I just don’t think we get any amount spent on the primaries.”

Marion and others also expressed the feeling that road service would be better if the township was served by the Manchester Yard instead of the Ypsilanti Yard. WCRC officials did not agree that that would speed service.

When the discussion became heated Callegari tried to bring it down a notch, speaking of the many things the WCRC has been able to complete even with their limited funds. He also spoke of other limitations placed on them.

“These guys are under restrictions too,” Callegari said. “They’ve got water resource commission; they’ve got a DEQ stating they can only do certain things at certain times. So as our frustrations run high, I know mine run very high, we have to think that there are other restrictions going on.”

“Keep it kind of civil. They’re trying; we’re trying. It’s a difficult situation.”

One DEQ regulation that came up in the meeting was a rule that tree cutting should only be done in the winter so as not to disrupt roosting sites of endangered northern long-eared bats. These animal’s numbers have dwindled to dangerous levels as they have been ravaged by a fungal disease.

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Townsend gave an extended presentation on what has been done in the township, how it is funded, and what can be done with increased funding. His presentation is summarized in a 20-page packet available here.

The bridge on Willow, which has been closed for several months, will be replaced in late summer or early fall. A new timber deck will be built on existing abutments and paid for entirely by WCRC.

More extensive repairs on Willow Road, Austin Road and elsewhere can happen if (and only if) county voters approve the proposed millage on August 2, Townsend emphasized. Since this would be an extension of the existing P. A. 283 millage, taxes would not increase relative to the last two years.

The new millage would raise $7.2 million per year for the next four years. It would be used to improve almost 200 miles of county roads.

Robert Conradi
Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.