Commentary: State of the Roads

Jan 17, 2013

Governor Rick Snyder would be the first to admit he is not a spellbinding speaker, and even by that standard, last night’s state of the state speech was not one of his best.

It’s hard to imagine that he could think that fostering a spirit of unity would be easy, after Republicans rammed right to work legislation through in a single day, without hearings, in what had to be the most bitterly controversial lame-duck session in Michigan history.

The governor’s weak acknowledgment that there had been “divisive times” at the end of the year and that he “wished it hadn’t happened” did nothing to heal the rift between the parties.

Democrats feel betrayed and lied to, and that isn’t going away any time soon. Add in the fact that Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic leader in the state senate, is almost surely gearing up to run for governor herself, and you don’t have an obvious formula for successful bipartisan cooperation.

Which is unfortunate for one big reason: Our roads. They are falling apart, and for the third year in a row, the governor is trying to do something about them.

Many of our roads are in bad shape. If you’ve ever left your house, you probably know that. Our roads and bridges are getting worse, and unless we are willing to invest a lot more new money in them, almost immediately, many will become hazardous to traffic, especially trucks hauling freight, and a strong disincentive to doing business in Michigan.

For years, transportation experts have indicated that an additional $1.4 billion a year in road funding is needed just to keep things where they are now. This year, the governor is asking for $1.2 billion, or ten billion over the next ten years.

Back in the 1980’s, this would have been seen as a no-brainer. Both parties would have gotten together and haggled about where the money was going to come from, and then they would have thrashed out a bill that would have passed almost unanimously.

Now, however, the governor has to face the fact that some members of his own party simply won’t vote to raise any taxes, for whatever reason, even if it were clearly necessary to save the planet.

Some of them are ideologues totally devoid of common sense. But others fear that if they vote to raise money for roads, they will be challenged in their own primary next time by a Tea Party fanatic.

And there are certain bitter Democrats who seem determined to make sure Snyder gets nothing that he wants, and especially nothing that would make him look good, even if doing so hurts them,

So, good luck getting your roads program through, governor. The tragedy in all this is that nobody doubts that new money for the roads is needed. The governor didn’t spell out funding specifics, though he indicated he’d favor some combination of increased wholesale gas taxes with increased auto registration fees,

He wants the legislature to hash out the specifics. But unless the leadership pushes hard for this plan, it won’t happen.

The jury is still out on whether Rick Snyder has evolved into an effective political leader. Whether he can get a much-need roads package enacted this year will probably be his ultimate test.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.