Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 16, 2009

Op-Ed: Mich. infrastructure in 'dire straits"


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 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. Literally.

The infrastructure, that is; the dams and bridges 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 that ought to have been front-page news. 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," he added. 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, the 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 back 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, Thelen said, "putting Michigan citizens at risk." The billions needed to fix things may seem like a worthy 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 of every five miles of Michigan roads are in "poor" condition, something that will be no surprise to drivers. Twenty-eight percent of the state's bridges are seriously deficient.

And not only are the funds not there to do the needed major overhaul of Michigan's crumbling infrastructure, the state isn't even spending enough to slow the decline. 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), the 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 as far as the eye can see, 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 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 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 ran twice against Coleman Young in the 1980s.

The years since haven't been kind to Barrow; he did a stretch in federal prison for tax evasion, and 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.