Lakeview is one of dozens of streets in Birmingham that haven’t been upgraded from their original gravel, which means there is no curb, no storm drainage and no pavement.

Lakeview is one of dozens of streets in Birmingham that haven’t been upgraded from their original gravel, which means there is no curb, no storm drainage and no pavement.

File photo by Donna Dalziel

Birmingham accepts $118M plan to redo gravel streets

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 13, 2021


BIRMINGHAM — The city of Birmingham is a lot closer to cementing a new plan — no pun intended — to repair 26 miles of unimproved gravel roads.

The objective of the plan is to fix the neglected streets and the infrastructure underneath without the need for resident petitions. For years, resident petitions have been the standard, but for many, it was an uncomfortable process, forcing homeowners to pressure their neighbors into signing on to spend big bucks for projects with special assessment districts.

The City Commission voted unanimously Dec. 21 to approve a plan recommended by the ad-hoc Unimproved Streets Committee. The group was formed in early 2018 to research and make a recommendation on how the city could take on the task of redoing unimproved roads without forcing residents to initiate the process via petition. They were also charged with figuring out how to fund the endeavor without instituting a citywide fee, forcing some homeowners who’ve already paid out of pocket to improve their own street to unfairly pay again.

Outgoing City Manager Joe Valentine presented the committee’s recommendations during the last scheduled City Commission meeting of 2020 — his last meeting serving in the position.

He explained that, currently, the city maintains unimproved gravel roads with a slurry sealant, not meant to last more than 10 years. Though the sealant can improve the driving surface, it cannot change the grading or drainage on the street. Unimproved streets are also not eligible for street cleaning or leaf pickup programs.

The most notable among all the committee’s suggestions is to shift the responsibility of road reconstruction projects from neighborhoods to city administrators.

“The city initiates the conversation of streets, rather than homeowners,” Valentine explained. “The city (will rank) unimproved streets based on condition, as well as age and condition of water mains, and prioritize streets to be included in the city’s five-year capital improvement program.”

He added that homeowners can, however, initiate a petition if they’d like their street to be moved up on the city’s ranking and get their repairs underway more quickly.

Birmingham Finance Director Mark Gerber stepped in to explain the committee’s strategy for funding the unimproved streets effort.

He started by detailing how much it’s estimated to cost the city to bring all streets up to date. For every mile of road, it would cost an estimated $2.3 million for road and paving repairs, along with $1.1 million in water line repairs and $1.15 million in sewer repairs. That’s a total of $4.55 million per mile, and Birmingham has 26 miles of road in need of improvement. That’s a grand estimated total of $118 million, which is the largest and most expensive infrastructure undertaking in the city’s history.

Gerber mapped out where road funding in the city typically comes from, which is three main sources: revenue from the state of Michigan via Act 51, derived from road weight taxes and vehicle registrations; property taxes; and special assessment district taxes, or SADs. Around 77% of local road funding in the city comes from property taxes, about 17% comes from Act 51 revenue and just 5% comes from SADs.

Water and sewer costs are considered a system-wide improvement and are paid by utility users, he said, though individuals can opt to update their individual service lines for a special assessed cost.

In other words, residents on unimproved streets would be responsible for 85% of the cost to repave the road, with the remaining 15% falling to the city. That portion of the SAD program would largely remain the same as before, with the city drawing funds from the general fund to pay for roads and issuing bonds for water and sewer expenses.

When asked by the commission why other forms of funding weren’t suggested by the committee, Gerber said options like SAD bonds or revenue bonds would be most complicated and costly.

“For a social assessment bond, there’s a cost associated with that. We thought it better to use the general fund to continue to (fund this effort),” Gerber said. “We don’t love revenue bonds because they have a higher interest rate, and the city is required to essentially put funds in escrow to ensure the debt is paid on a timely basis.”

Commissioner Stewart Sherman agreed with Gerber’s assessment, saying that most residents have preferred being involved by the city with a 10-year payback period as opposed to a long-term option that could lead to a lien on the property.

“We decided that’s not a good way to go,” said Sherman, who is a member of the ad-hoc committee. “More than half of the residents who’ve done this have paid up front, and most of the other half have paid it off within a few years.”

The final of three main recommendations from the committee, Valentine said, is that all of the unimproved streets be reconstructed in concrete as opposed to asphalt, though that could be changed at the discretion of city engineers as needed, depending on the project. Concrete was found to have a longer lifespan at around 30-40 years, nearly double that of asphalt.

Some residents listening in on the City Commission meeting virtually objected to that aspect of the plan, including resident Rob Lavoie.

“There should be an opportunity for residents to have some input provided in this committee’s recommendation,” Lavoie said. “So if they have a strong desire to have concrete over asphalt or asphalt over concrete, the engineering department would take that into consideration.”

Resident Matthew Carmona said input on materials and even design should be considered from homeowners.

“There’s no way you could do the standard 26- to 27-feet format on our street without taking out trees on either side. And when we moved here, that’s the first thing we noticed,” Carmona said. “It’s not just a change in the initiation process, but a change in the entire process. I did see there was flexibility in the plan, which I appreciate. I did review it. I think for certain people, the residents might have a little more say on what happens on their specific street. When the time comes, that may be reassuring.”

Taking those thoughts into consideration, but noting the ad hoc committee had done its job and provided a thoroughly researched report, the City Commission moved not to enact the suggestions but rather accept the report and direct city staff to begin implementation. In the short term, that includes adding the plan as suggested to the commission’s long-range planning agenda, set to be taken up Friday, Jan. 23.