Pothole claims? Fuhgeddaboutit

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Image: _chrisUK, Flickr.

By Maxwell Evans
Capital News Service

Michigan agencies rarely reimburse drivers for pothole damages, a fact that rings true for drivers seeking reimbursement from county governments as well.

In Gladwin County, all damage requests are handled by a third party, Sedgwick Claims, according to Dave Pettersch, the managing director of the county’s road commission.

Any claims paid go against the road commission’s insurance, although the county receives only about one request per year, he said.

“Once they leave here, we usually don’t hear back on the results of them,” Pettersch said. “But very few of them are paid out.”

To be eligible for county payouts, the damage must have occurred on a county-maintained road. The offending pothole also had to be known to the commission but not fixed, said Pettersch. He also serves as vice president of the County Road Association, an advocate for Michigan’s 83 county road agencies.

At the state level, payouts are capped at $1,000 per claim, with lawsuits being the only option for drivers seeking higher amounts, according to the Department of Transportation. As it stands, MDOT has 30 days from being informed of a pothole’s existence to fix it before it can be held liable to reimburse drivers.

Even with clear eligibility guidelines for submitting a claim, the state rarely approves payments — only 27 of 717 requests were approved in the last three years, according to MDOT records.

Pothole reports filed with MDOT aren’t publicly available, although they are subject to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. This can make it a challenge to verify whether rejected claims involved potholes that went unfixed for more than 30 days.

In response, House Democrats have introduced a bill package that would raise the maximum payout for pothole damage to $5,000, limit the maximum response time to seven days and create a website for the public to track where and when potholes have been identified. The bills would apply to claims only against the state.

The lead sponsors are Reps. Leslie Love, D-Detroit; Patrick Green, D-Warren; and Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township. The bills are pending in the HouseTransportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Similar regulation at the county level would hurt county road agencies, said Todd Behring, the managing director of the Montmorency County Road Commission.

He said that the $175 million in additional road funding unanimously approved by the Legislature  this year should be reserved for exactly that — the roads.

“The roads are an issue. That’s why we’re getting extra funding to try and make them better,” Behring said. “We’re not getting funding to give to the general public because they hit a pothole.”

Both Behring and Gladwin County’s Pettersch agreed that drivers must pay attention to the roads, as counties simply do not have the money to be aware of and fix every pothole.

Paying for every instance of pothole damage to cars would pose “an insane threat” to county budgets, Pettersch said.

County road commissions “have the funding to fix the roads, and drivers have the responsibility to slow down,” Pettersch said. “That’s what it comes down to. If you’re in an area where you know there’s potholes or you see them coming, move around them or go through them slowly.”

Rural areas like Montmorency County, which has only 19 residents per square mile, rarely get valid claims of pothole damage, Behring said. That’s something that happens only “maybe down in the cities.”

Behring said he hasn’t handled even one pothole damage claim in his three years as managing director.

“It’s a little slowed-down up here,” Behring said. “People don’t drive 85, 90 miles an hour. We don’t have the traffic that you’ve got down there.”

Nearly 90,000 miles of road are maintained by counties, representing about three-quarters of the state’s total road mileage.

However, they aren’t subject to the same stress, as fewer drivers use county-maintained roads as a whole. State-funded roads account for only 8 percent of Michigan’s total road mileage and carry 53 percent of total traffic, according to MDOT.

Michigan spent about $314 per person on state-maintained roads in 2015, the most recent year available from the Federal Highway Administration.

For comparison, neighboring Ohio spent $502 per capita — which is still less than Illinois’ $527 or Wisconsin’s $616.

MDOT Director Kurt Steudle said Ohio focused its repair efforts on highways closest to the Michigan border to show drivers the difference immediately after crossing state lines.

Many of Michigan’s pothole problems would likely be less severe if the state could afford more than so-called Band-Aid fixes, Steudle said.

“If for the last 10 years we had been doing longer-term repairs, they would be more structurally sound,” Steudle said.

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