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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Published: Friday, 8/22/2014

COMMENTARY

Michigan lawmakers do nothing as roads rot

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Lessenberry Lessenberry
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HUNTINGTON WOODS, Mich. — What will it take to get Michigan to repair its crumbling infrastructure?

Last week, anyone driving on residential streets in this affluent little Detroit suburb might have thought it was a recent war zone.

Four-fifths of the houses had immense piles of ruined belongings at their curbs — appliances, furniture, books, and mementos, some piles nearly as high as the homes themselves. Warren, a blue-collar factory town a few miles east, was even harder hit.

Nor was it easy to get anywhere in metropolitan Detroit. Flooding had left every freeway partially or totally closed. Hundreds of cars lay floating or rusting in the water.

What happened was partly a freak of nature. Detroit was hit early on the evening of Aug. 11 with a once-in-a-century rainstorm, in which 5 to 6 inches of rain fell in barely an hour.

Nothing could have prevented flooding. There was simply no place for all that water to go, noted Jeff Cranson, the communications director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

Yet the crisis also highlighted a major problem: For years, Michigan has been neglecting its infrastructure, not even spending the minimum needed to maintain the basic arteries of civilization, including roads and sewer lines.

Consider, for example, the flooded freeways. Many if not most in the Detroit area are “below grade,” sunk beneath surface roads. This was done half a century or more ago to preserve surface streets, and, Mr. Cranson noted, “was actually a somewhat environmentally friendly solution to move traffic and minimally disrupt neighborhoods” and reduce noise.

Naturally, this made the freeways more vulnerable to flooding, so the state established a system of 165 pump houses designed to keep them dry. Most — 139 — are in metro Detroit, where most of the recessed freeways are. But many don’t work.

According to MDOT, a staggering 58 percent of the pump houses are in poor condition; only 22 percent in good shape.

Why? Michigan lawmakers are unwilling to provide the money to fix them. MDOT says that the money allocated to improve or replace defective pump houses is $4 million. To fix or replace just one costs an average of $1.5 million.

Most of the pump houses in the Detroit area are maintained by Wayne County. Some have been knocked out by vandals who stripped the wiring to sell to scrap dealers.

There is no indication that the pump houses were a factor in this storm. Indeed, the rain was such that “our engineers say even all pumps functioning at 100 percent could not have prevented freeway flooding,” MDOT said.

Not in this storm, perhaps. However, Michigan’s neglected infrastructure needs are far more extensive than freeway pumps.

Mr. Cranson gave up a career as a journalist to join state government after his work made him “more convinced than ever that our state needed a laser-like focus on infrastructure.”

Unfortunately, while Gov. Rick Snyder may recognize the need, that hasn’t been true of the Legislature, where, one longtime observer said, “a combination of benign ignorance and Tea Party malevolent ignorance is preventing any solution.”

That is most clear when it comes to the roads. Michigan, the automobile state, invests less in transportation per person than any other state, according to 2010 Census data.

Nor is that a blip. For the past 50 years, Michigan has ranked in the bottom 10 states in the country for investment in roads.

Six years ago, a transportation funding task force run jointly by the governor’s office and the Legislature said the state needed to “at least double” what it was spending on transportation. That didn’t happen, and the cost of neglect has increased.

Two years ago, Governor Snyder asked lawmakers for $1.2 billion in new revenue annually to fix the roads. Though both houses of the Legislature are controlled by his fellow Republicans, they did nothing. Then came last winter’s record snow and potholes.

State Sen. Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R., Monroe) became a convert. Suddenly, all he was hearing from constituents was: “Just fix the damn roads.” But though he tried hard, he was unable to get lawmakers to approve substantial new money.

This has meant a steadily compounding problem. Roads and bridges are like teeth; not fixing cavities early can have dire consequences. The latest legislative study places the cost of the annual investment needed just to preserve existing roads and bridges at nearly $2.2 billion, a figure likely to continue to grow.

Tragically, though lawmakers are afraid to ask for new revenue, according to Mr. Cranson, “the cost of doing nothing more to address the current transportation funding crisis is significant: $7.7 billion annually in lost time, wasted fuel, crashes, etc.”

Coming up with the needed money would likely take a significant hike in both the state gasoline tax and in vehicle registration fees.

However, infrastructure investments produce jobs. MDOT studies indicate that enacting the governor’s road proposal would result in 14,400 new jobs in the first two years alone.

Over a decade, more than 130,000 jobs would be created, and personal incomes would increase by nearly $12 billion. Michigan and its residents would realize more than three times the proposed investment.

The need and the urgency would seem clear — to everyone except legislators. Last week, the state Senate met for one day, but only to pass a law designed to prevent a citizens’ group from outlawing wolf hunting.

Some observers hope that a road funding bill will finally pass in a lame-duck session after the November election, with the votes of defeated and retiring lawmakers who have little to lose.

Given their record, however, you might not want to bet on it.

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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