A lakes area state lawmaker is resurrecting a controversial subject on behalf of lakes area residents and officials by seeking to revise the way speed limits are set along the county’s approximately 800 miles of dirt and gravel roads.
State Rep. Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake, Highland) introduced House Bill (HB) 4037 on Thursday, Jan. 13. It would amend Public Act (PA) 300 of 1949 and applies to a speed limit that was posted as of Nov. 9, 2006 in a residence district along a dirt or gravel roadway.
The goal is to put input back in the hands of county and community officials rather than impose a prima facie speed limit (55 miles per hour) that currently applies on gravel or dirt roads if speed limits aren’t posted as provided by law.
Kowall co-authored the bill with state Rep. Hugh Crawford (R-Walled Lake, Wixom). The legislation states, “A speed limit that was posted as of Nov. 9, 2006 in a residence district on a dirt or gravel road located in a city, village or township is effective unless the city or village council or township board requests the county road commission to change the speed limit within that posted area and the speed limit is re-established.”
“We need to put more criteria into the formula to establish speeds on dirt or gravel roads,” Kowall said. “Right now they use access points and population (to set speed limits), but no topographical information like curves, hills, sight distance, or narrowness.”
White Lake Township Trustee Mike Powell, a civil engineer, concurs.
“Each road must be evaluated individually to determine speed limits,” he said. “There may be some validity to the current state guidelines but they must be based on the number of driveways tempered with traffic and the proximity of the house from the street.”
Current state law requires that speed limits on gravel roads be set according to the number of access points — driveways, side streets or intersections — located along a stretch of roadway. For a half-mile stretch of unpaved roadway with 60 or more vehicular access points, the speed limit is to be set at 25 mph; between 45 and 59 access points require a speed limit of 35 mph; and with between 30 and 44 points of access, the speed limit must be 45 mph. These prima facie speed limits aren’t in effect unless they are posted properly in the appropriate area.
If a speed limit sign isn’t present on an unpaved road, the “general speed limit” of 55 mph applies.
Kowall said that’s not always a safe scenario for motorist or pedestrians.
Crawford said his hope is that the bill will rectify a long-standing problem by giving control to municipalities and road commissions instead of the state.
“I’ve always favored local control over state control,” Crawford said. “Local folks know best what the speed limit should be.”
The issue drew dissension back in 2007, when former Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed a similar bill. Granholm argued that there was a conflict with the Michigan Constitution. Reportedly, the governor also vetoed the legislation because of a concern about potential litigation, since the bill was originally drafted to address license plates, not the way speed limits are established.
Many area residents and municipal officials opposed the new law, citing safety concerns associated with raising speed limits along hundreds of gravel road sections in Oakland County.
According to Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) Spokesperson Craig Bryson, proposals like Kowall’s have failed to pass in the past due to the lack of support around the state outside of Oakland County.
“Nearly all other counties have gravel roads with the unposted prima facie 55 mph (speed limit),” he said. “The Michigan State Police (MSP), who got this law passed in 2006, argue that when there is an unofficial low speed limit, people ignore it, and if one is posted it only encourages people to disobey the law.”
Bryson added that according to data, when a 25 mph speed limit is posted, motorists tend to drive 37 mph on average.
Currently, in order for a speed limit to change, the county road commission, the municipality, and the MSP must sign off on the change.
“Unless the road meets the access points required, MSP won’t sign off,” Bryson said.
Again in March 2008, legislation was introduced to make 45 mph the absolute limit one is allowed to travel on all non-paved or dirt roads under county jurisdiction.
The bill was met with derision and died on the House floor.
Now Kowall is trying to move her new bill forward not only for drivers, but for pedestrians, as well.
“We need to put things back to how they were before,” Kowall said.
Powell said he has a vested interest in the bill since he resides on a gravel road and travels them frequently.
“I’m in favor for the local community having control over these speed limits,” he said. “A number of these roads like Cooley Lake Road are posted at 55 mph — that’s way too high. It should be between 25 and 30 mph, which is more reasonable.”
Powell also cited concerns about the dust, noise and speeding that frequently occurs along unpaved roadways.
“Cars that travel over 25 or 30 make a lot of dust and noise, which are a major nuisance to those on the roadways,” he said. “Cars also tend to travel faster and have a greater chance of losing control.”
RCOC officials voiced reservations about the legislation by taking another perspective.
“We are concerned about it because it costs a lot of money to put up or, in other cases, take down (speed limit) signs,” Bryson said. “This would be an unfunded mandate at a time when there is no extra money.”
The bill has been referred to the House Transportation Committee, where it awaits a hearing.