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Published: Friday, 5/15/2009

To make matters worse, Michigan's falling apart

LANSING - You may well have known that Michigan has the nation's highest unemployment rate, that the state's largest industry is in major trouble, and that General Motors may go bankrupt.

You may even have known that the state is facing enormous budget deficits.

But now for the really bad news.

Michigan is falling apart.

The infrastructure, that is; the roads and bridges and dams and water systems.

Though it was virtually ignored by the state's media, the American Society of Civil Engineers' Michigan chapter released a report Tuesday.

Basically, it said that the state's roads and bridges are in terrible shape.

So are the storm water and sewage systems.

They are all crumbling, and state government isn't even spending enough to stem the decline.

"What this report is saying is that America's infrastructure is in dire straits," said Kirk Steudle, the state transportation director. "We're squandering our inheritance."

It is hard to imagine that anyone reading this report could disagree.

Scariest of all, perhaps: The state's wastewater systems have lasted decades longer than anyone had reason to think they would.

According to Mike Thelen, vice president of the engineering society, 90 percent of the dams in the state are within a decade of having outlasted the time they were supposedly good for.

He estimated it would cost $6 billion to bring the state's wastewater systems up to date. (Some of Detroit's sewer pipes date to the Civil War era).

That may seem like a lot of money, especially when the state is flat broke.

Meanwhile, this neglect is clearly, Mr. Thelen said, "putting Michigan citizens at risk."

The billions needed to fix things may seem like a worthwhile sacrifice, if the alternative is waking up some morning to basements full of raw sewage with no place to go.

And if that wasn't sobering enough: The engineers' report also said the state's roads and bridges are in even worse shape, if that is possible.

Nearly two out of every five miles of Michigan roads are in "poor" condition, something that will be no surprise to motorists. Twenty-eight percent of the state's bridges are seriously deficient.

Engineering officials said to keep the current system at a maintenance level, the state would have to spend $3 billion a year.

That is without including any money to plan and build more modern transportation systems.

Michigan, shockingly, is only spending half that much. Rep. Pam Byrnes (D., Chelsea), head of the House Transportation Committee, understands how critical this issue is.

"We must have action, and I will lead the charge," she vowed. Yet it is not certain how the state, facing record budget deficits far into the future, could pay for the urgently needed improvements.

It is not certain whether the Republican-controlled Senate will agree to support repairs.

And Ms. Byrnes is term-limited and will be gone in a year and a half. Fixing this will take much longer.

Resolution in Detroit: What a difference two weeks has made for Dave Bing, the city's new mayor.

At the start of this month he was trailing in the polls, before pulling out a come-from-behind victory May 5 over interim Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr.

Even his victory was seen as just one more step in a long, hard process. That was just to serve till the end of the year. He now faces a primary in August and a general election in November for the full four-year term.

Analysts had expected that Mr. Cockrel, Kwame Kenyatta, a well-known member of council, and perhaps some other major and well-funded candidates would jump into the race. That would have forced Mayor Bing to spend much of his time campaigning, instead of wrestling with crime, unemployment, and the city's massive deficit.

But all the top-tier contenders pulled out of the race, meaning Mr. Bing will face only a handful of gadflies in the August primary, and one better-known opponent.

That man is Tom Barrow, an accountant who twice ran against Coleman Young in the 1980s.

The years since haven't been kind to Mr. Barrow; he did a stretch in federal prison for tax evasion, and he still owes the IRS more than $150,000, factors he said the voters shouldn't hold against him.

Barring a miracle, the next two elections should be a slam-dunk for Dave Bing.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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