County Road Commission

I received a question from Larry asking if I could help get his road plowed.  While we can certainly pass Larry’s concern to the Road Commission the County Board and Administration really have no operational authority over the Road Commission.

I wrote the following article for the County Connections employee newsletter a while back and thought it would be useful to inform readers how the County of Ottawa and County Road Commission relationship works.

January 16, 2007


The biggest misperception regarding County government is that we are responsible for of County roads.  My opinion has been formed by numerous citizen complaints received by Commissioners and my office and from the citizen survey that Ottawa residents completed and a similar survey done in Kent County a few years ago.  In both counties, citizens rated the effectiveness of County government as high, but when ask to list their concerns, road maintenance was rated first.

The County government has no authority or responsibility for road maintenance or construction.  The Road Commission is a separate governmental organization from the County.  Its budget, audit, pension, policies, facilities and property ownership are independent of the County.  The only authority that the County Board of Commissioners has over the Road Commission is a statutory responsibility to appoint the three-member Board of County Road Commissioners.  Or alternatively, the Board of Commissioners could require the Board of County Road Commissioners to be chosen by election of County voters.  The County Treasurer manages Road Commission investments per state law.

The history of road commissions began in 1879 when a group of prominent bicyclists organized the League of American Wheelman because they were tired of riding on rutted roads.  The group became the first good roads advocate group in the country.  They were opposed by farmers in particular who accused the group of pursuing a selfish interest for better roads when no one else wanted better roads.  The first government action in Michigan regarding roads took place in 1883 when the State Legislature created the first district road board in Bay City and encouraged other counties to create good roads.  The Wayne County Road Commission became Michigan’s first road commission in 1909 and introduced concrete roads to the world that year as well.  Henry Ford was a member of that first road commission for one year.

The earliest roads in Ottawa County were trails created by Native Americans.  After the arrival of the first settlers, roads existed as walking and horse trails between settlements.  The Ottawa County Road Commission was formed in 1911 by vote of County residents who voted to have the County adopt the road system and the Board of County Road Commissioners held their first meeting that year.  The new road commission had authority over 206 miles of County roads.

Today the Road Commission has legal jurisdiction over all roads in Ottawa County with the exception of those inside city boundaries and state and federal highways.  This includes 401 miles of primary roads and 1,250 miles of local roads.  The Michigan Department of Transportation contracts with the Road Commission for maintenance of another 506 miles of roads.

Part of the confusion may be due to the fact that the road commission managed the County parks system until about 1990. In Michigan, early parks were roadside parks for automobile travelers to rest in.  Since the road commissions were the only county organization with heavy maintenance equipment, a state law authorized counties to contract with road commissions for maintenance and oversight of County parks.  As park investment and development escalated in some Counties, oversight was changed to park commissions or to the board of commissioners and administration.  The Board of Commissioners formed the Parks Commission in 1986 and made a three-year commitment to continue maintenance services through the Road Commission.  The Park Operations Center was built, maintenance plan created and staff was hired and most Road Commission services were terminated by the spring of 1990.  

Ottawa County contracts with the Ottawa County Road Commission for management of the Public Utilities Department which oversees the County’s interest in the South West Ottawa County Wastewater Treatment Plant, the County interest in the Grand Rapids and Wyoming water pipelines and over planning for water and sewer service in the non-municipally served areas.  The County helped fund the River Ave. bridge construction project in Holland through the Infrastructure Development Fund.  The Road Commission uses the County seal as an identifier instead of its own seal on its website and that could be a confusing factor for some.

The County enjoys a close working relationship with the Road Commission in many areas including quarterly update meetings between Board and staff leadership of both organizations. 

One current hot issue is the composition of Road Commission boards.  A law was recently enacted over the protests of the County Road Association of Michigan, which represents road commissions in Lansing that allows county boards of commissioners to increase the size of road commission boards from 3 members to 4 or 5 members.  The decision whether to increase road commission board size will undoubtedly be debated in many Michigan counties over the next few years.

So the next time someone refers to County government and roads, you can now let people know the scoop and who is really responsible for them.

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3 Responses to County Road Commission

  1. kirk says:

    hello? BTW!!!!!!!
    merry CHRISTmas !!!!!!! !!!!!!! !!!!!!! !!!!!!! !!!!!!! !!!!!!! !!!!!!!
    was up?

  2. I appreciate the history lesson on Road Commissions! I love the tidbits about Henry Ford’s participation and the 19th century bike group.

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