Lansing’s solution to Michigan’s sorry roads is sorry

Residents of Hamtramck made national news this summer for raising money to fix potholes themselves.
Residents of Hamtramck made national news this summer for raising money to fix potholes themselves.

Anyone who has ever driven in Michigan knows our sad-sack, pothole-ridden roads and bridges are an embarrassment, even dangerous, and an economic albatross for our state. I have a pothole smack dab at the foot of my driveway. Luckily for me, the city patched it this summer, but others have since developed further down the block.

I didn’t start this blog as a place to rant about politics, but as the old sayings go, the personal is political, and all politics are local.

godfatherSo let’s talk about this week’s $1.2 billion road construction package, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature.

As in, it sucks.

As in, hope you like your potholes and your crumbling bridges, ‘cuz they probably won’t be getting fixed any time soon.

We waited this long for this?

This road fix, if you want to call it that, was at least four years in the making, counting by Snyder’s naming of it as a key priority during his first term. But people around here have been screaming for a solution to our dismal roads for far longer than that. (Yes, the roads were bad under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, too.)

I am hard-pressed to be able to explain all the details of how the plan is supposed to work (the Freep has a good explainer), but here goes: It relies on $600 million in gradually increased registration fees and fuel taxes for its new revenue. To compensate for asking people to cough up more money (averaging a tyrranical $60 per year, the governor estimates), the plan commits to various tax cuts and dipping into the state’s general fund for the remainder.

rube goldbergMichigan Radio commentator Jack Lessenberry, a former professor and career mentor of mine, compared the package to a Rube Goldberg machine.

But wait, it gets better! None of this happens immediately, and the state won’t see the full $1.2 billion for road construction for at least five years! It will also blow an estimated $806 million hole in the general fund — meaning money for schools, cities and the poors — by 2021. Is this brilliant, or what?

The Detroit News put it bluntly in a brilliant headline: “Drivers shouldn’t expect big road gains in a hurry”. No, our chickenshit leaders in Lansing — many of whom campaigned by railing against lawmakers for kicking the can down the road and putting off making tough decisions — opted to kick the can down the road and put off making tough decisions for another legislature. Their successors will be left to clean up the mess and figure out how to implement the budget cuts that will no doubt be necessary, and painful.

Lipstick on a pig

It has been amusing, however, to watch supporters try to spin this as a good deal.

There were two quotes from supporters that really stuck in my craw. The first was from GOP House Speaker Kevin Cotter, who dispensed this gem to the News:

“I felt passionately that phase-in was important because if we injected the full $1.2 billion we were going to drive inefficiencies because of simple supply and demand. It’s going to take time for the road-building industry, in both the public and private sector, to respond. And I think that we’ve done that in a responsible manner by phasing it in over five years.”

Yes. You see, Michigan’s job market is purring like a finely tuned Hemi. No way are there enough out-of-work people to hire, or road construction equipment to procure, to fix the roads. Right?

Then there was the governor, who has had a difficult second term. There have been problems getting his fellow Republicans to go along with his previous roads plan, a similarly complicated roads proposal he supported got crushed by voters, he’s got major headaches trying to fix the Detroit Public Schools and his administration is facing serious questions about its involvement in Flint’s drinking-water scandal.

Just a few weeks ago, Snyder opposed the basic tenets of this same roads fix. Now, he’s apparently desperate for a win.

“If you look back in history, you’ll find that this is the largest investment in transportation in the last 50 years in the state of Michigan,” the Republican governor told reporters at his Capitol office following the House votes Tuesday night. “This was a great exercise in relentless positive action.”

I’d argue it would have been better from a PR standpoint if either man had just told the truth: That this was probably the best anyone could hope for from a legislature dominated by far-right, anti-tax zealots.

So to my Michigan compatriots: Have fun driving this winter — and watch out for potholes. There’s no one coming to save us.

Photo via Hamtramck Guerilla Road Repair

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