Michigan's roads are worse than Ohio's – what are they doing right?

Most people would argue that Ohio’s roads are better than Michigan’s – you can just tell when you cross the state border. 

Michigander Brian Heaton lives a Hail Mary pass from the Ohio border. As a custom builder, he caters to many customers in the Buckeye State — a place admired not so much for its college football team, but certainly for its smooth highways.

"The roads (in Michigan) are bad – they’re bad," he said.

In fact, after doing a job in Ohio, Heaton says driving home feels like trying to navigate a gravelly bombed minefield.

"I could probably do a better job," Heaton said.

So why have decades of Michigan governors and lawmakers never been able to fix our damn roads?

Along with current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Republicans and Democrats have made the same promises over the years.

"We are fixing the roads and we are fixing them now," said then-Gov. John Engler.

"When visitors come here, we don’t want them to have to put on a helmet and feel like they have to drive in a Humvee to be safe going down our freeways," Gov. Jennifer Granholm previously said.

"It's roughly a billion to $1.2 billion a year of additional investment we need to make," former Gov. Rick Snyder said, who served before Whitmer. 

More than four decades of political campaign promises that are now as broken as our state’s roadways.

"I am going to the tire shop at least once every other month," said resident Mack Dodd. "It costs me money – plenty of money."

All that damage is keeping businesses like Warholak Tire in Detroit serving customers for more than 80 years. Manager Steve Beydoun said the only thing that has changed is the cost of fixing cars.

"The average person is paying anywhere (between) $2,000 to $3,000 a year for tires, wheels," he said.

FOX 2 went to Ohio to find out why the roads are so much smoother than Michigan's. What is the difference? Because you can feel it. 

Michigan's roads (at the top) compared to Ohio's roads (on the bottom), at the Michigan-Ohio border.

Is Ohio using different materials for its roads? 

Ohio’s Department of Transportation (ODOT) maintains a huge network – nearly 50,000 thousand lane miles of roadway. In comparison, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is only responsible for about half of that – around 28,000 lane miles.

After crossing the state line, driving is as smooth as gliding on polished marble, and the noisy rattle disappears.

Also noticeable is the contrast in road color at the dividing borderline. 

"We do see some different aspects," said Dan Miller of ODOT.

Miller manages Ohio’s road materials, and is the person who provides contractors with the so-called "recipes" for the roads. It’s like baking a cake. And inside ODOT’s testing labs, engineers mix combinations of road "ingredients."

"In our base area we are using a larger coarse aggregate," Miller said. "And that larger coarse aggregate is going to be able to take that heavier load and transfer that load down into the base material and allow for the vehicles to travel."

On top of that, Ohio mostly uses an asphalt mix on their highways. Engineers discovered it is quieter to drive on, and more flexible than concrete – which makes it less prone to cracking under heavy loads or extreme temperatures.

Meanwhile, Michigan constructed many of its highways using concrete back in the 1950s to accommodate truck traffic. Even though concrete costs more, it was said to last longer. But that wasn’t the case. 

And Miller can see the difference now in Michigan.

"We do see some potholes for concrete pavement," he said. "You see different things. You have faulting, you have curling and warping that cause issues where you're riding along and you're kind of bouncing along on a concrete pavement."

Miller points to the testing labs as a major contributor to Ohio’s road success. Once the hired road contractors submit what they plan to pour, engineers put the materials in the asphalt mixes through rigorous testing.

Once a layer of roadway is compressed and then cooled down, it is tested – first, an air void test, and then to find out if it can withstand the freeze thaw cycle and the pressure of vehicles driving across it.

ODOT's freeze-thaw cycle test involves putting the actual sample into a water bath, heating it up to about 140 degrees, cooling it down and then doing the pressure test.

The testing is done before the concrete is laid. Even its support, rebar, is tested first.

On the other hand, MDOT may not be testing enough. 

What is Michigan doing wrong?

In 2022, the state’s auditor general released a report that revealed MDOT did not meet the requirements to test the aggregate used to repair and build highways.

The department also did not properly inspect the labs of the gravel suppliers, and ensure the quality of the aggregate supplier in 2018, according to the report. 

In 2023, the state’s auditor general reported that MDOT did a complete road contractor and consultant performance evaluations – another state requirement to sensure quality road construction.

MDOT responded to those reports by saying it has since corrected the problem, and that quality was never impacted – placing the blame on other factors.

But why, when we compare our roads to other places like Ohio, does there always seem to be some sort of excuse?

FOX 2: "Sometimes we hear, 'They have a toll road – that’s why they have good roads.' But you only have one that goes east to west."

"And it is its own separate entity," said Matt Bruning with ODOT. "The Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission runs the Ohio Turnpike. It’s a completely separate entity. We don’t get their money or their funding – that goes right into the turnpike."

In fact, ODOT’s frontman says Ohio’s roads are almost fully funded by the gas tax. In contrast, Michigan’s sales tax on gas does NOT go to roads.

In Michigan, crews constantly patch cracks and road holes – mainly blamed on freeze-thaw cycles during brutal winter months. But did you know who has it even worse?

"Ohio generally has more," said Jeffrey A. Andresen, PhD professor and climatologist for Michigan.

Which means Ohio’s roads should be in worse condition. Andresen, who is also a Michigan State University professor, has been collecting data and studying the influence of temperature and weather patterns for decades.

It turns out, numbers show, over the last 30 years, Ohio has had more freeze-thaw cycles than Michigan – but in just the last few years, Michigan has had the same, or a few more.

"But in roads and maintaining roads, especially road conditions, it is a big one," Andresen said. "The more of these cycles that we have back and forth, the more pressure the surface is under with maintaining itself."

And even though this year Michigan had the warmest winter on record – he says both states experienced a lot more moisture.

"It also of course has to do with water – and the fact that when we have these freeze-thaws, liquid turns into ice and it takes up more volume, and of course can cause further deterioration, or further cracks or larger crevices than were there before, and it's just sort of a destructive process over time," Andresen said.

Heavy truck loads can also destroy roads over time. That’s why there are weight limits in both Michigan and Ohio, which are considered key logistic hubs.

In Michigan, trucks can carry more weight but have restrictions on the number of axles and spacing to distribute weight.

It is a bit stricter in Ohio – the weight of the load can depend on the season. Trucks follow federal weight restrictions. And when trucks haul, in some cases, around 400,000 pounds – they pay more.

"It is about making sure the resource that is sent to us, via the taxpayer, they get the best value for that dollar," Bruning said.

While electric vehicle owners bypass the gas pump, they have to pay higher registration fees – so they still chip in for the roads we all rely on.

On top of registration fees, Michigan EV owners pay $235. While Ohio pays a little less, at $200.

But is it making a difference? Michigan’s crumbling roads are an age-old problem.

"The materials they use, like this driveway, we build it up with two and half foot of compacted stone," Heaton said. "They don't do it right."

FOX 2 reached out to Whitmer's office several times for an interview regarding what it will take to finally fix Michigan's roads. FOX 2 did not receive a response. 

Stay tuned for part two on Wednesday, on FOX 2 Detroit, at 10 p.m.