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Unless lawmakers grow up, Michigan's roads will only get worse

Mar 2, 2018

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller almost always calls it as she sees it. She’s deeply conservative, but mostly doesn’t let ideology get in the way of common sense.

So I wasn’t surprised yesterday by how she summed up the $175 million road funding bill just passed by both houses of the state Legislature.

The bill, she said, is “just a drop in the pothole.” 

She was, as usual, absolutely right. Michigan’s roads, like the rest of our infrastructure, are falling apart. The governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission concluded 15 months ago that we need to throw an additional $2.2 billion a year that we aren’t spending now into our roads, every year, for the foreseeable future.

Michigan, in other words, is falling apart, thanks to decades of neglect. The nation is too, by the way. We’ve been ignoring our infrastructure needs far too long. The Great Recession and, in this state, the declining automotive economy are part of the reason why.

Term limits and pure selfishness may be even more to blame. Why, if you are a politician, should you cause voters short-term pain for long-term gain if you won’t even be around when the benefits kick in? Less than two years ago, Governor Rick Snyder proposed depositing $165 million a year into a new state infrastructure fund.

That amount is, of course, laughably inadequate; the governor’s infrastructure commission estimated the state needs to spend an additional $4 billion a year to deal with everything from roads to bridges to broadband. But all the legislature would set aside was a paltry $5 million, which would maybe pay for fixing one mile of a four-lane highway.

Now, especially with this hard and snowy winter and yesterday’s freak storm, things are getting really bad. Some voters told legislators they’d rather they put money into the roads than the silly tax cut enacted last month, a cut virtually meaningless to anyone not a multi-millionaire. The lawmakers, many of them supported by those millionaires, weren’t listening.

Instead, they decided to use $175 million of the $280 million surplus the state is expected to run this year. Democrats, however, wanted to supplement that with another $275 million from the state’s rainy day fund, which Snyder has built up to almost $900 million.

But Republicans refused. I can see both sides of this argument. Having a cash reserve against the next inevitable recession makes sense. But if this isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what counts as one. The problem seems especially bad in Macomb County.

The private news service MIRS noted that State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren read a letter signed by both Republican Candice Miller and Democrat Mark Hackel, the county executive, saying that, “An eminent danger to life and property exists in Macomb and much of Southeast Michigan due to the condition of the roads.”

Republicans dismissed this, saying that the $1.2 billion road package they passed in 2015 would soon kick in. But not only is that not nearly enough money, it does so by taking $600 million a year out of the already crippled general fund, which pays for education.

If we are ever to prosper again, we need a government run by grownups. We don’t have that now, and our cars are among the first to feel the result.

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.