Opinion
11:02 am
Thu October 24, 2013

Remember the roads?

Lessenberry commentary for 10/24/13

Earlier this week I had a meeting in Ann Arbor and then went to Detroit. When I swung off the freeway onto a surface street I hit a pothole I couldn’t see so hard I was convinced I’d lose a tire.

I was lucky. Everything seems fine. But I drive a lot, and have lost two tires in similar episodes in recent years.

We need to fix our roads. Figuring out how to do so is the responsibility of our lawmakers. But they won’t do it. Which means  we are all going to pay more and more to fix damage to our cars. 

It means the state will lose business and new jobs we could attract, if we resembled a modern  society, with decent first-world infrastructure. And it means eventually we will have to pay more to fix the roads. This isn’t opinion, this is established fact.

To his credit, the state transportation director, Kirk Steudle, said this again yesterday. Early this year, the governor, after consulting with experts, said we need $1.2 billion dollars a year to fix our existing roads. We’re not talking about building new ones.

We are talking about fixing the fast-deteriorating roads we have now before they collapse completely into potholes and gravel. Do nothing, as our legislature has been doing, and that price tag will double in a decade. As Steudle candidly said yesterday: 

“They are going to continue to get worse every year. The bad news is the longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost us to go forward,” Unfortunately, our lawmakers still won’t do anything.

Some of them are in fact crazies who believe it would be better to have no roads than raise taxes to fix them. Many more are political cowards; terrified lest they face a primary challenge from some right wing demagogue who attacks them for raising taxes.

So in our legislature’s world view, the only possible way to find new money to fix our roads is through eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Steudle was at the Capitol because he had been hauled up before a couple house subcommittees to talk about cost savings in his department. He dutifully reported they were saving sixty three million a year, primarily by not filling vacant positions. Like any good bureaucrat up before his bosses, he pledged to do more to “find more efficiencies.“ But then, in a moment of candor, he added, “Even if you got to $100 million, you’ve still got $1.1 billion to go if you want to move that pavement condition up.

“It’s about investment.“ Except that our lawmakers aren’t into investing in the future. One of them asked why money was being wasted replacing highway signs in his area, and had to be told they were being replaced by federal funds because of safety requirements. Perhaps to cover himself, Steudle later said he was encouraged by the “passion” he saw in the lawmakers who questioned him. But I am not sure what they are passionate about.

Certainly not about tackling the hard part of their jobs, They are, however, phasing in a complex tax break on traded-in vehicles.

And I suppose that makes sense. Since they won’t fix the roads, we’ll need that money to replace the axles on our new cars.

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.

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