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Here's why you should care about the Macomb County sinkhole

Jan 6, 2017

By now, millions of people have been horrified by the great Macomb County sinkhole, which has destroyed at least three modern houses in the suburb of Fraser.

Imagine waking up on Christmas Eve, as one couple did, to the sounds of the foundations of your house popping as it sank into the ground.

That would be a great beginning for a horror movie, except it’s real.

The story has gotten deeper, more horrifying and seamier ever since. Politics has reared its ugly head; this happened just as former Congresswoman Candice Miller was replacing longtime public works commissioner Anthony Marrocco after a very nasty campaign.

There are allegations of corruption and talk of damages in the hundreds of millions, and nobody’s completely sure what went wrong.

Michigan's infrastructure is literally falling apart.

But what I think most of us are missing is that this is not really about a sinkhole. This is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, comrades. Michigan’s infrastructure is literally falling apart. We aren’t alone; the entire country has neglected infrastructure needs for decades.

We just happen to be the worst state in the union, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

That’s based on a report that’s a few years old, and they will soon come out with a new one. But based on everything I know, my guess would be that, if anything, things here have gotten worse. Part of this is due to the venial, short-sighted nature of politicians.

Chicago’s first Mayor Daley supposedly said that in politics, you don’t get any credit for building anything below street level, anything the eye couldn’t see, which may be why our water and sewer systems are such a neglected mess.

Add to that the common insane notion that all taxes are automatically bad, a principle that has dominated the Michigan Legislature and you have a prescription for disaster.

The average cost in extra wear and tear on our cars is considerably greater than what it would cost to properly fix the roads. But the cowards, ideologues and fools who represent us have failed to properly fix them because that would mean raising taxes.

Never mind that we are paying more than we would and getting nothing. The Macomb County executive has asked the governor to declare a state of emergency because of the sinkhole. I expect he will, and that the sinkhole eventually will be repaired.

But there will be more sinkholes, and bridge collapses, and water main breaks, and more Flints, in one form or another. More than 90% of the state’s dams are about at the end of the time they were designed to last. If you don’t maintain things, they fall apart.

Try never changing the oil in your car and see what happens. The governor knows all this perfectly well. He’s appointed a 21st century infrastructure commission.

This is what you do when you are unable or unwilling to do anything about a problem; you appoint a commission to write a report. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Taxes used properly are necessary and good, and we need to understand that.

Right now, we need to pay a lot more of them, or we’ll soon be paying far more, and getting disaster in return.

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