Death by Infrastructure — It’s More than Flint
Michigan’s voters, motorists, and lawmakers alike aren’t kidding themselves into believing the paltry roads budget plan enacted last fall is anywhere close to what’s needed to keep the state safely on the move, especially since the skint deal won’t even phase-in for a number of years — conveniently after its promoters have left their current office, while hundreds will have lost their lives navigating unsafe roads.
The Michigan Department of Transportation issued a report a few weeks ago that laid bare the true nature of the hazardously underfunded scheme Lansing put forth — a plan that’s leading the state’s crumbling transportation network down the same rabbit hole as Flint’s water system. How many people are destined to lose life and limb on recklessly neglected roads? As it stands, Michigan drivers will find out the hard way — but this time around, the blame can be placed squarely on the legislature for turning a blind eye to the scope of the problem — failing in its core responsibility to adequately fund the state’s basic infrastructure needs for the health and safety of the public.
The roads plan, crafted and supported largely by GOP lawmakers, offers a mere $1.2 billion per year, and that, only when it fully takes effect in five year’s time. While that may sound like a lot of jack, MDOT puts it in perspective with a cost comparison for reconstructing and maintaining roads on a per lane-mile basis, based on a variety of quality levels and lifespans.
By that math, Michigan could at best address only several hundred miles of road lanes with a twenty year lifespan, per year. That estimated “design life” (shorter than the shelf life of a Hostess Twinkie) is the current standard in the state. Long-term cost savings could be had with increased upfront investment — something that’s not going to happen with the current shrink-the-government mentality ruling Lansing. Lawmakers built trip wires into their roads plan that lockdown funding disbursements, making them subject to future approval based on the state’s ability to demonstrate it can build longer-lasting roads. According MDOT figures, Michigan’s roads are currently losing value at the rate of $3 million per day.
Not surprisingly, Michigan doesn’t stack-up well against other states on infrastructure reinvestment. A longitudinal study of state-level funding issued earlier this year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Michigan was sorely lagging. Between 2002 and 2013, the state ranked third worst in the category of percentage of gross domestic product dedicated to infrastructure — logging a net decrease over the period. Michigan has been allocating only 3.4 percent of its budget to infrastructure projects — tied with Vermont for second worst in the nation — leaving motorists to pay the price for the state’s neglect.
It’s more than roads, bridges, and water supply. Brick and mortar public schools are badly in need of attention, particularly in Michigan. Detroit Public Schools are beyond a disgrace for the state, yet Lansing continues to dither on proper funding. With deadly mold, vermin, and lack of proper heat and water, DPS is the poster child for the national trend of ignoring infrastructure needs in areas of chronic poverty.
The investment will improve state economies, now and in the future. Higher-quality and more efficient infrastructure will boost productivity in states that make the needed investments, lifting long-term economic growth and wages.
Opportunities to finance infrastructure investment abound. Today’s historically low interest rates are especially favorable to such borrowing, and state and local debt is below pre-recession levels.
As with many states under Republican control, Michigan’s tax revenues have been irresponsibly slashed. Under the Snyder Administration, massive corporate tax breaks have eroded the state’s ability to reinvest in the future. Part of the spending must come from rolling-back those corporate giveaways. Businesses place a premium on quality of life issues when deciding where to locate — the Flint fiasco, bad roads, and crumbling schools are making a persuasive argument for businesses to swipe-left on the Great Lakes State.
Moving forward, lawmakers will be tempted to rely heavily on public-private partnerships, or P3s, which draw on private capital to bankroll infrastructure improvements. The nonprofit privatization watchdog group, In the Public Interest, warns that these arrangements must be carefully crafted to protect the interests of citizens. ITPI offers the following best practice guidelines to states and municipalities that enter into contracts with the private sector:
- Incorporate job quality and equity policies, like prevailing wage standards and apprenticeship utilization requirements, into P3 enabling legislation and/or project contracts.
- Incorporate targeted hire programs into the construction, operations, and maintenance of infrastructure to ensure that disadvantaged communities, like low-income families, women, people of color, and those with a criminal record, have real opportunities.
- Create Community Workforce Agreements (CWAs) that establish targeted hiring goals, training opportunities, and jobs for communities of need.
- Establish boards or other advisory bodies for oversight of equity programs and policies.
If properly implemented and managed, ITPI believes P3s can be a useful tool to create jobs and build communities. Yet, privatization screw-ups are another problem proven to plague the Snyder administration. Sloppy governmental oversight is just as large a concern as is falling prey to greedy contractors. Michigan has a bad track record for both.