Michigan to State and Federal Leaders: Take the Wheel and Increase Infrastructure Funding

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Frustration from citizens, business executives, the labor sector and local officials is mounting as states, such as Michigan, face major revenue shortfalls to modernize America’s once-unequalled transportation infrastructure.

In 2018, the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Transportation Asset Management Council (TAMC) reported that “over 36,000 lane miles are in poor condition, or 41 percent of all paved federal-aid roads. Twelve years ago, 25 percent were in poor condition. Given the current rate of road deterioration and given the anticipated funding levels for road preservation and repair, the percentage of roads in poor condition will remain above 40 percent for the foreseeable future.”

It also reported that there are over 165,000 lane miles of non-federal-aid roads in Michigan and “it is probably safe to assume that, as a class, non-federal-aid roads are in worse condition than federal-aid roads.” (The assumptive phrasing is tied to the number of agencies that submitted ratings and statistical relevance.)

“As the CEO of a statewide business organization, when I’m not in the office I spend a lot of time on the road and I put a lot of miles on my vehicle and it’s frustrating to be stuck in traffic due to poor road conditions and it’s frustrating to have the extra wear and tear on vehicles, whether it’s passenger vehicles or commercial or industrial vehicles,” explains Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Rich Studley. “In Michigan lately, people have been mad as hell about the high cost of auto insurance or the need for road repairs when you hit a very bad stretch of road and it’s very costly for both working families and job providers. There’s a high level of frustration and concern about the need to fix the roads here in Michigan.”

Studley has been at the fore for 11 years and is going into his 38th year at the chamber. He is quick to observe that coming up with an infrastructure funding amount and actually paying for it are two different animals. He also points out that infrastructure has been a bipartisan issue in Michigan and typically elected leaders, including those who are more conservative, know that infrastructure investment triggers economic growth and jobs creation.

As local governmental entities in Michigan try to cobble together funding to improve the state’s transportation network, any debate over whether or not the nation needs more regional investment in transportation infrastructure is likely to be met with an eye-roll.

“First, just by way of example, we in the current year are spending about $31 million on roadway improvements in the city. Over an eight-year period of time, we will have spent over $400 million on roadway improvements. The problem is that the gas tax is not even coming close to funding our roadway needs and that includes major roads and local roads and neighborhood roads,” notes Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool. “That means our general fund has to subsidize road improvements. This year, for example, we’re subsidizing our roadway improvements with general fund money and we’ve had to pass a local millage — it’s called Safe Streets — that was passed by the voters six years ago and it’s up for renewal this November. So that’s the problem: the gas tax is not sufficient enough to fund our roadway needs in the state.”

The crux of Michigan’s transportation difficulties are the same as the nation’s:

  • aging and stressed systems;
  • growing multimodal capacity needs;
  • unsafe conditions;
  • the urgency to rebuild and deliver cost benefits;
  • a push to integrate new technology to remain globally competitive and keep our country secure;
  • elected leaders unwilling to take decisive steps to create sustainable funding; and
  • a lack of a new federal infrastructure package.

One barrier to better infrastructure is the unpredictability of short-term funding, rather than a long-term plan that sets aside real and reliable revenue for some years down the line, which is what Trump and members of Congress promised to do.

Studley details why: “A challenge we have with up and down funding is it’s very hard on the private sector. The last time we had a substantial and extended decline in road funding in Michigan — we have a lot of great construction companies that didn’t go out of business — but [companies] relocated a lot of their workers and a lot of their engineers and a lot of their equipment to other states like Florida and Texas that were growing in population and had more steady work. You can’t expect people to sit around from one year to the next hoping there will be funding available.”

The business community and regional officials see that the call for infrastructure investment won’t go away just because Congress and the White House are not pushing it now. Infrastructure issues are, unfortunately, part of the fabric of American life today and foremost, too, to Michigan’s future. The examples are mountainous, but a few are enough.

The state is working with the federal government on designated funding for a modernization initiative and new lock at the Soo Locks which enable ships to pass between Lake Superior and Lake Huron in Sault Ste. Marie.

Studley points to the Gordie Howe International Bridge as a major surface-transportation project that is underway and significant for Michigan. It is expected to be the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America and will link Detroit and the Canadian city of Windsor. “The Government of Canada is covering the cost of the project, including the project components in Michigan,” according to Mark Butler, Director of Communications with the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA).

And as an example of how there is also critical infrastructure beyond what people commonly see, Bryan Santo, Director of the Macomb County Department of Roads, says that one massive sinkhole (caused by a sewer line collapse) came with a remedial price tag of $75 million.

Beyond roads, TAMC also highlighted that almost 11 percent of Michigan bridges are structurally deficient. Its comparisons to progress being made in other states led it to emphasize continued concern regarding the state’s ability to preserve its bridge assets.

In Michigan, much hangs in the balance.

“Without a change in state and/or federal funding, we’re just not going to be able to meet the demands of roadway infrastructure in cities across the state. Michigan spends among the least on roadway funding per capita of any state in the country and you get what you pay for,” adds Vanderpool. “We have some of the worst roads in the country and for a state that really put the world on wheels, we can and must do better.”

Read part one of this story.

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