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Michigan is falling apart

May 11, 2016

Imagine bringing Abraham Lincoln back to life today. What do you suppose he would find most shocking about life in today’s America?

Airplanes? Same-sex marriage? A black president?

It might be modern plumbing. But I can tell you one area where he would be puzzled, dismayed, and angry.

And that would be that we are letting our infrastructure fall apart. While we think of Lincoln primarily as a great moral and military leader, the focus of much of his career was on what then were called “internal improvements. “ Today, we call this infrastructure, the often forgotten underpinnings of our civilization.

That means roads and bridges and wiring; water and sewer pipes and systems. We built these decades ago, when we were an expanding civilization and believed in ourselves.

Now, they are falling apart. Thirty years ago, there might have been some controversy over how to pay for new roads if we needed them, but there was never any real question about whether to do so. Now, we are literally letting our country fall apart.

Last night, I had the privilege of moderating an Issues and Ale event Michigan Radio hosted in Lansing. Our panelists were three people who really know this state’s infrastructure: Charles Ballard, a professor at Michigan State who specializes in our state’s economy.

Aarne Frobom, a longtime planning specialist with MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation. And Mike Nystrom of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, which is essentially a lobbying group for the construction industry.

We met at an excellent place called the Beer Grotto, a stone’s throw from the Capitol Dome, where decisions that will lead to the saving or neglecting of this state’s underpinnings are made.

Earlier that day, the American Society of Civil Engineers released a report saying that over the next decade, the nation is projected to spent $1.4 trillion – that’s a thousand billion –dollars less than needed on our infrastructure. This gap is only expected to widen.

In Michigan, the situation is worse, especially for our neglected roads. The legislature did finally pass a bizarrely complex plan last year, which eventually is supposed to generate another $1.2 billion a year for our roads.

But the panelists agreed all this will do is cause our state to fall apart a little more slowly; the real amount needed is more than $3 billion.

The fact that a nation still as rich as ours is allowing our foundations to crumble is baffling – until you understand that economics have nothing to do with it; this is driven by ideology in its worst form, plus the destructive effects of term limits and gerrymandering.

Economist Ballard said as a joke that he wasn’t sure whether carpet bombing would be worse than term limits for our state. I’m not sure it is a joke. Fully twenty percent of the legislature has signed a no-tax pledge which has resulted in the mindless rejection of proposals that would make save us serious dollars in the long run.

There is one bit of good news. As Mike Nystrom noted, for the first time, polls show that infrastructure needs are now the number one issue in Michigan. So all we need now is a responsible government that really cares about our people and our future.

Good luck in getting there.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political 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.