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Michigan's infrastructure is falling apart

Mar 8, 2018

I’ve always been leery of people obsessed with a single issue, who see the world entirely through some narrow prism. Marxists tend to be like that, if there are any left.

Single-issue people tend to be terribly boring. But I find that I too am becoming more and more obsessed with a single issue, and I think you should be too. I’m not talking about the coming workers’ revolution, however, but something else: Michigan’s infrastructure. 

Our state is wearing out and falling apart. This is a national problem, but the numbers indicate it is worse here than in any other state. This is going to literally kill some of us because of bad roads, collapsing bridges, et cetera.

But it is going to financially kill, or at least cripple, all of us as our state becomes less and less able to compete. Two days ago, the Michigan section of the American Society of Civil Engineers released its annual report on our infrastructure.

They gave us a D+ overall, which signifies worse than average. Very little of this surprised me.

As the engineers’ report card says, “Much of the state’s infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life and continues to threaten Michigan’s lakes, rivers, drinking water, and public health and safety.”

We all know about the roads, and our politicians’ disgraceful failure to follow our wishes and fix them. But what I did find alarming was how much in peril our drinking water is.

I knew that we had a storm water problem. Four years ago this summer, many neighborhoods in metropolitan Detroit were devastated by a freak flood when we had something like six inches of rain in a very short time.

Later, it turned out that most of the pumping stations didn’t work — some because scrappers had torn copper wires out of them long ago. Now cynics might think the engineers are making the problem sound more dramatic than it is because they want their members to be hired to fix things. I’m sure they’d be happy to have more work.

But as I looked at the civil engineers’ figures, I realized things were probably worse than they think they are. That’s because they were largely using the numbers from a document that deserves more notice, the governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission’s report.

The report, which you can easily find online, was published on Nov. 30, 2016, when I think many of us were still shell-shocked from the election results three weeks earlier.

The engineers repeat the commission’s figure, for example, that 39 percent of Michigan roads are in poor condition. But a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation told me that the roads are almost certainly worse now.

That figure is two years old, and we haven’t spent anything like the money needed to fix them. Michigan, in fact, has been spending a smaller percentage of its state budget on capital improvements than any other state in the union. Yes, we are indeed falling apart.

This is an election year, by the way, and I thought you might want to know.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.