Commentary: Don't waste this chance to fix our roads
By Rich Studley, President & CEO, Michigan Chamber of Commerce
Crain's Detroit Business
In a year like 2020, the news that we may fix more roads next year is something to be optimistic about. Michigan is poised to spend more money on road repairs than ever before in 2021. Unfortunately, government may also waste more money than ever before unless we enact urgently needed reforms.
Google searches bring up headlines like "Michigan has worst roads in U.S., study says," but we didn't need a study to know that. Michigan's drivers and their cars bear the brunt of potholes, crumbling asphalt and even falling concrete every day. They pay the price in damaged cars, slower traffic and the frustrating, trust-eroding feeling that they are paying millions in taxes and fees but not seeing progress in return.
Our businesses and economy suffer, too. Getting materials to factories and products to market takes longer and costs more when the roads are in bad shape, trucks get damaged and traffic is backed up. Michigan's reputation is taking a beating as well. Bad infrastructure makes it harder for economic development leaders to make the case to potential investors that Michigan is the place to bring more jobs. Especially when other states do better.
Getting the roads fixed is a statewide problem that is hurting us all, so it requires everyone to pitch in. To address this, last January Gov. Whitmer announced a plan for the state of Michigan to sell $3.5 billion in bonds to finance an aggressive road repair plan, something we support.
Now we need to be sure those dollars are used as efficiently as possible to achieve the biggest economic impact possible. If the state of Michigan — that means you — is borrowing billions to achieve visible progress, then we better be sure government doesn't waste a dime.
However, that is exactly what will happen if we do not enact bipartisan infrastructure construction reforms introduced in the Michigan Legislature by Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, and Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona.
Here is the problem: Small groups of local naysayers are costing the entire state millions in
government waste by repeatedly blocking the mining of high-quality sand and gravel that is required by state and federal officials when building long-lasting roads. Sand and gravel are the main ingredients in concrete and asphalt, without which we cannot fix the damn roads.
Michigan is blessed to have these materials, but they are deposited in limited locations. And the best locations, as you'd expect, are closest to where major infrastructure repair projects are taking place.
But, repeatedly across Michigan, when the infrastructure industry finds the aggregates required to complete a road project, chronic complainers bully decision makers into refusing mining permits in one fashion or another. As a result, millions in tax dollars are wasted as the aggregate supply market tightens, sending material prices higher. Worse, our money is also wasted as protesters force materials to be trucked from longer distances, sending transportation costs through the roof before a single pothole is filled.
No wonder taxpayers are so frustrated with the lack of progress.
The reforms before the Legislature fix this broken system by allowing aggregate mining to take place closer to where we need it, but only after holding mining companies accountable.
This includes environmental, noise, appearance, and traffic considerations to ensure we protect local communities while also fixing our statewide road crisis. We can do both and we must.
If we are already wasting road funding today on higher material costs and trucking fees, it upsets me to imagine how much more will be wasted when we inject billions in new taxpayer funding into the system.
With these reforms, more roads will get fixed and our economic recovery will receive a boost. That is why we are part of the Build It Michigan Strong coalition of major union and business groups, which is urging the Legislature to pass these reforms into law. If we are going to spend more money on our roads, let's stop government waste and make a difference that taxpayers can actually see — and feel.