Transgender bathrooms or crumbling infrastructure?

Some things matter a lot over the long run. Whether our kids are equipped to compete in the 21st Century. Whether our economy provides a balance of equity and growth to enable a secure future for us all.

Some things don’t. Which bathroom our kids are supposed to use in school. Whether the Brook Trout should be named the state fish. Even (this pains me, a died-in-the-wool U of M fan) whether Jim Harbaugh’s summer football camps are a good thing for football.

The distinction here is between the long run – things that last and have a big impact on the ways things work for years and years – and the short run – the stuff of momentary headlines and brief clashes of opinion but don’t leave much of a lasting mark.

Sadly, most of the debate and conflict these days seems to be over short run things, which tend to be of intense but momentary interest. Maybe that’s why we tend to call statesmen and stateswomen those few leaders who find ways to concentrate public attention on the long run things that really matter.

And that’s why an initiative from Rick Snyder, our now hobbled governor, deserves both notice and praise. Described recently by Bridge Magazine reporter Lindsay VanHulle, Snyder proposed in his State of the State message last January a 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, a group of 27 members designed to study state infrastructure in its various forms – roads and bridges, telecommunications and the Internet, water and sewer systems, energy production and use. The commission is charged with studying our infrastructure, examining best practices from around the nation and the world, and reporting by Nov. 30th.

This is no easy matter, because nearly everything the commission would touch is both largely invisible to ordinary citizens (until things go wrong) but has direct, long-term consequence. Examples abound, but consider just three:

  • Catastrophic breakdown in Flint’s drinking water safety and distribution system.
  • The 2003 massive electric power blackout which shut down most of this part of the country and left 50 million people nationwide without power for days.
  • The August 2014 rainstorm that pelted Southeastern Michigan with six inches of rain and left drain pipes clogged, expressways flooded and backed up sewage into countless basements.

The widely respected American Society of Civil Engineers recently reported just 57 percent of the nation’s estimated $3.3 trillion in needed infrastructure repair is funded. ASCE says delaying these repairs will cost our national economy $4 trillion in growth by 2025, when poor infrastructure could cost U. S. businesses more than $7 trillion in sales and 2.5 million jobs.

For those who track things like Flint and the condition of our roads, it will be no surprise that Michigan now boasts the worst infrastructure of all 50 states, having been assigned a “D” grade by the ASCE back in 2009. A new report, due next year, will likely be even worse.

The infrastructure problem is obvious. Sewage isn’t politically sexy – unless, that is, you have it stinking up your basement.

To my surprise, a recent Michigan State University survey found that fixing ailing infrastructure is now the top priority among Michiganders, ahead even of jobs and the economy.

But try telling that to lawmakers running for election this year. How many votes do they figure on winning from in the “Fix The Sewers Constituency”? Remember, it took several years to get even a half-hearted plan to fix our crumbling roads through the legislature. Gov. Snyder in January asked the legislature for $165 million in startup money for a new infrastructure fund. You can win a modest prize for guessing just how much he’ll get to implement that idea.

Reporter VanHulle’s piece in Bridge drew a lot of reader response, much of it anti-spending and anti-tax. “Our cities are a perpetual welfare case, money pits that outstate residents should be expected to shovel funds into?” seems a representative post. Another reader commented that “I’m kind of tired of all those Bridge articles basically saying we have problems and we need more tax dollars to solve them.”

That’s exactly the distinction I’m trying to draw here. The more we fail in the short run to maintain and repair the infrastructure that undergirds our daily lives, the more we’ll have to pay over the long run for bigger repairs and/or replacement.

As the guy in the TV commercial said, “You can pay me now … Or you can pay me later.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Jean Howard
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 9:39am
Great article Phil and so true.....we need to concentrate on long term issues, not these small skirmishes that solve no major problems within our state.
Dan Sibo
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 10:19am
Moving from a committee to realistic and sustained, multiyear funding will be, I'm afraid, a bridge too far for a legislature focused on social issues, the next election and tax cuts for businesses. Government, at all levels, use to have a long planning and implementation horizon. Now it's not the next generation of citizens they are concerned about.
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 10:49am
THANK YOU!!! We have passed the point where we can say we need fewer taxes. We are now ranked 50th in infrastructure, 41st in education, 50th (I believe) in transparancy....and the list goes on. We used to be one of the best states in the union, and now we rank at the bottom in almost every area. I like low taxes as much as everyone else, but it does take money to provide basic services in a civilized society. Who would want to come to Michigan to open or expand businesses in a climate like ours?? Is the legislature really interested in creating jobs??
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 10:59am
And creating an environment where State government effectively addresses big-picture, long-term planning for infrastructure maintenance is another issue which isn't supported by legislator term limits. Term limits have been a disaster for Michigan.
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 11:25am
Phil, your comments regarding the short and long term issues this country and state are facing are right on! "The long run--things that last and have a big impact...", certainly include our roads, bridges, quality of drinking water, education, etc. Several years ago, Proposal 1, which was a bad proposal, failed, but the issues Prop 1 was attempting to address, still remain. Michigan will not solve these infrastructure challenges with revenue cuts to existing programs. New revenue, dedicated to these issues is a requirement. Period. Which means a tax increase. Oh, well! Michigan residences can live with crumbling infrastructures, and watch the continuation of people exiting the state, our we can put together a long range plan that will provide a viable future for all of us. Mike Shibler.
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 12:16pm
You always provoke thought: What if estates of all people whose earning years were in Michigan could be taxed at 10% for the use of infrastructure maintenance?
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 1:48pm
Tea Party/anti-tax thinking is killing Michigan - and the United States. This is our home. And some don't want to patch the leaking roof. The same parties who rail about welfare and supporting the "unproductive," want "someone else" to provide the infrastructure we all depend on. These are the ultimate freeloaders - not the people who they rail against, people who genuinely do not have resources. Those who oppose raising revenues for public infrastructure fail to recognize that we all use that infrastructure, and we should all be willing to pay for what we use. Michigan is no longer the "frontier" where people were of necessity largely self-sufficient. If we want that life again (and my guess is that few would want that life), we would have to reduce the population of Michigan to about 5% of the present population (or less), and everyone left would become subsistence farmers. There would be no schools, no medical services, no electricity, no tractors or other agricultural equipment, no natural gas piped into homes, no electronic devices (heaven forbid we not have Fox News), no roads (just trails through the forests), and little or no protection from those who would harm others.... Modern society and modern technology require modern public infrastructure, and the benefit we all receive from it far outweighs the cost. To be sure, we need to guard against corruption and waste, far too much of which exists, but the way to achieve that is not to refuse to raise and expend public funds. Free enterprise can only thrive when we have government and public infrastructure and services that establish the basic environment and resources needed for private enterprise. After World War II, our nation built infrastructure (including the interstate highway system) and promoted education (think GI Bill) that made the enormous success of the last half of the 20th Century possible. For several decades now, we have "mined" that infrastructure, reaping short-term profits at the expense of the degradation of the very assets that made that success possible. If we are to recover our lost momentum and again enjoy the success we enjoyed during that last half of the 20th Century, we will need to pay the infrastructure debt we have amassed, expand and improve education, and renew the assets and resources that made it possible. There is no free lunch.
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 2:05pm
You don't mention the pension crisis which involves government employers like school districts paying more and more for pensions and health benefits to retired public employees. These costs are projected to grow and to squeeze out both infrastructure expenditures and even reasonable compensation and benefits for new hires. This is particularly unjust where public employees are allowed to retire in their 50s and get automatic COLA increases on their already-excessive pensions. We need more municipal bankruptcies in order to get this pension situation under control and do a fresh start on allocating taxpayer money.
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 2:34pm
Unfortunately, our term-limited legislators have absolutely no motivation for trying to be "long term". They are constantly running for the next office that they can shuffle to. From state rep to state senator to county rep to some other office, our elected officials are constantly needing to pander to the lowest common element in order to stay relevant in the headlines.
Barbara Hogan
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 2:56pm
Our legislators don't want to deal with the tough issues. It's called avoidance. I don't understand this anti-tax mentality, especially when everyone is complaining about the condition of our roads and bridges to say nothing about water/sewer systems, power grids and airports. Think of all the jobs that would be created by addressing our country's failing infrastructure.
Barry Visel
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 4:38pm
Michigan could grow revenue by an estimated $30+Billion dollars per year by eliminating tax credits, tax deductions and tax incentives (They are all listed in the State Budget appendix on tax expenditures). Bridge is tax exempt...why? I don't pay sales tax on services...why? My AGI is adjusted down because I pay mortgage interest...why? People who pay city income taxes can take a deduction on their state taxes...why? Our current tax rates would provide more than enough money for what some people seem to think we need, if only we would collect it.
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 5:54pm
I would doubt that Bridge makes profit, so what do you tax? But you can reasonably debate the validity of deductibility of donations and eliminating the deducting of local taxes is a great idea. How about applying sales tax to food? Many states don't give that exemption without experiencing mass starvation. You could probably lower the overall rate and still pick up some revenue.
Barry Visel
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 9:31am
Regarding sales tax on services...I worked the numbers a few years ago (as published in the Appendix on Tax Expenditures located in the State Budget document), and it appears you could lower the sales tax rate to 3% applied to everything EXCEPT food and pharmaceuticals, and still raise an extra Billion dollars. Regarding Bridge and all other tax exempt organizations, they would pay taxes on all revenue received, after expenses, just like other's not governments role to decide who pays and who doesn't...nor should I get a tex credit or deduction just because I give money to some organization. Although, in the end, I wouldn't tax businesses in the first place, because whatever they pay is just a pass through from their customers who buy the goods and services. So, the problem I have with tax exempt organization's is they promote tax deductions as a way to solicit money because of how the tax code has developed...eliminate the tax deductions and I'm happy...because then the government influence part is taken away.
Mark Ehlert
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 5:13pm
These comments are very much on target. As a resident of the UP, we see so little of the infrastructure dollars yet all the headaches when we're left behind. Efforts are underway with our SmartZones to increase the level of employment for our youth and young adults to keep them here and allow this part of the State to mount a comeback. We could use some help from the legislature where it seems to be that the overall focus for our entire State is lost in the details.
Wed, 06/08/2016 - 2:14am
The topic is important; the approach is narrow and reflects just popular media’s view. Before a commission is chartered to look at the infrastructure we need a conversation about what each of the infrastructure elements purpose is. Before anyone can determine the needs they must understand what results are to be achieved. How can we have confidence in the recommendations of a commission if they are focused on the needs of the past and not about the future? The headlines we will read after the commission completes its report are Michigan must spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure, the conditions of the current infrastructure are dire, and the economically is being held back due to the state of our infrastructure. The same as we have heard time and again with nothing changing. We need a new approach and the public needs to be part of the change. Mr. Power and others have preoccupied on paying for previous infrastructure fiscal irresponsibility while failing to consider the future needs the infrastructure should address. We hear talk of investing in mass transit, but what is never included in that talk is the actual ridership [why we want the system]. Why do we need buses that are mostly empty, what do we need trains that travel 40-50 miles? If people aren’t riding them why spend the money? Why have train services between Ann Arbor and Detroit when the high knowledge/skill jobs and the people capable of filling those jobs live in Ann Arbor? Why spend billions on moving people out of their communities when we might benefit more by spending millions on making it faster and easier for people to share data and communicate? Do we really need to be in the same building to work together?
Wed, 06/08/2016 - 10:08am
Duane as you know politicians and committees love big projects because there are lots of opportunities for naming them, putting on plaques and other signage as well as grandiose ceremonies with gold shovels and all that. You never get the same benefits from not building a project no matter how ill conceived. Besides If you build it they will come, we have good intentions, blah blah blah. Besides once a project is built very people ask any questions or even remember no matter how much of a failure it turns out to be. No questions on what the cost vs. the benefits will be asked. I am watching Grand Rapids bus service do this with the Silver Line as we write, mark my words, the fact that it doesn't even nearly meet projections will be confused and blurred and when the bus milllage is asked to be extended sure enough it will be! Face it's just not nearly as much fun to put your name on a wire and then bury it in the ground or in the wall.
Wed, 06/08/2016 - 3:31pm
Matt, I agree, and the GR Silver Line optimizes this state wide problem. Politicians everywhere and especially those in Lansing along with the agencies in Lansing do not think about improving, they don’t have a culture of effectiveness and results, and they only understand basking in the glory of spending. What I hope for is that a few people on Bridge ask and discuss issues such as infrastructure, offering different perspectives and approach. I continue to hope that Bridge would break from their bias toward politics and encourage conversations with/among the readers, that they would encourage innovative ideas and approaches to long standing problems. In the case of infrastructure, even Mr. Power uses it as a catch all for almost any government spending. The reality is that when people/politicians/agencies want money to spend they cry out about ‘infrastructure’ without making an effort to describe the results it should deliver. It would do so much good to identify what the pieces of our infrastructure are, describe what results it should deliver [how to measure those results], who/how that part of the infrastructure should be managed. Mr. Power [like so many others] only seems to see infrastructure as government activities, I think that is wrong and distorts how we manage and pay for it and even how effective it is. He can only see is through taxing Michiganders and misses the point of it being the system of activities that facilitates our community living. Where he sees it as roads and bridges [paid for by taxes], I would include medical care [hospitals, urgent care, family care], the network of gas stations and electrical charging stations, the natural gas system and electrical grid [all paid for by the users]. What would you include in our infrastructure, what results do you see it delivering, how might we measure those results?
Fri, 06/10/2016 - 9:16am
Duane, My problem with the discussion of infrastructure is that the definition is so fluid, changing and narrow, and the effect of government expenditures with inevitable regulations is often to cement in place older alternatives to the detriment of new technology, co-operative solutions and other market, private and citizen lead initiatives. Nor do I have any confidence in anyone's abilities to predict the future track that such developments will take. For this reason I always favor the more diffused decentralized solutions before pushing any solution even on and or up the governmental pyramid. Most Bridge writers have a predilection for big one size fits all government solutions to every problem or need that come along instead of allowing organic solutions to develop through human co-operation and market means or asking what regulations impede the development of such solutions or cause the problem in the first place. Once governmental programs and institutions are developed, they become entrenched without evaluating of effectiveness with the possibility of elimination due to effectiveness or to have available private solutions. There is largely an attitude at Bridge that public sector decision and action are based only on the purest altruistic motives and competence while private sector only from short sighted greed. If Flint had a privately managed water system would we have had the problem in the first place? When Bridge writers beat the drum for more government expenditure it is always to cement in place the same old methods, solutions, technology and bureaucracy. Detroit schools?!!!!
Sat, 06/11/2016 - 12:47am
Matt, It is not about changing what is infrastructure it is about opening it up to reflect reality and how it should serve us so it can evolve to serve us in the future. Government thinking focuses on control and writes regulations with the purpose of enforcement not for performance of those being regulated. The only way to break that cycle/mindset is to provide alternative approaches that provide for the public in better ways than the government does/proposes. That necessitated the public being innovative, developing competitive ideas, presenting the means to deliver results government couldn’t envision. I agree with your view on the approach most who post on Bridge, favoring a centralized elitist view of government. That approach facilitates both their view of how to best influence life in Michigan and facilitates their desire to have an impact on that influence. I will apologize to Mr. Power as he is a most visible and present person demonstrating such a view of government. It was formed as he was growing-up in a time when that was the hope people depended on. The best way to break such an emotional bond that narrow thinking is by engaging them in a public conversation where that can demonstrate how it has changed and become much more altruistic and thoughtful and innovative. The readers need a venue to show how their diversity of thought is more creative and more effective and more able to deliver results than ‘centralized’ government. By simply establishing criteria for what constitutes infrastructure begins to break the mindset that only government can provide infrastructure and that real results can be achieved by an evolving infrastructure [something that government culturally can’t do]. In Michigan we have many examples of how centralized organization driven by control and fail, it isn’t just the government, consider the Detroit 3 auto companies, the unions, etc. Centralization resists change and innovation. Just by listening, much faster if participating, to conversations people will begin to break that bondage to an old/outdated view government, of infrastructure, of the public. For all you reasons and mine I think a public conversation is the best place to begin planting and nurturing the seeds of ideas. As long as the stereotyping of ‘infrastructure’ and belief that government employment makes people altruistic is left unchallenged that spiral down to government and community failure will continue. What do you consider parts of the criteria are for defining what infrastructure is?
Jim Reed
Wed, 06/08/2016 - 5:06pm
HOw can we get our friends in Lansing to wake up to these major needs instead of counting paper clips?
Cheryl Farmer
Wed, 06/08/2016 - 5:14pm
This is an excellent article! When I ran for Mayor of Ypsilanti in 1998, all the concern expressed at the doors of constituents was about the crumbling local streets. After I was elected, I assembled a Blue Ribbon Committee to figure out how to pay for new streets They said we needed to pass a millage in order to have the needed funds, and we did. There were of course nay-sayers, some of them quite loud. But the average voter understood that rebuilding streets costs money and it's worth it to invest in new streets. Once the millage passed, we rebuilt all of the local streets. While we were at it, we had DTE replace the gas and electric lines and YCUA replace the water mains underneath the new streets. YCUA also identified and notified property owners of any lead water service lines at that time, and encouraged replacement between the city mains and the buildings. It just makes sense to take care of business before a calamity can happen! I look forward to hearing the recommendations of Governor Snyder's infrastructure committee.
Robyn Tonkin
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 3:14pm
I am so glad that Mr. Power decided to write a commentary on infrastructure spending, and discussed the responses to Reporter Van Hulle's thoughtful and well written article. I am glad because Mr. Power touched on the type of comments that were made to the Van Hulle article, and I was annoyed and yet bored by the anti-infrastructure repair comments. One man actually wrote about cities in a priggish way, yet nonsensical way--are they a benefit or are they drain. Cities may be costly to maintain, but they are THERE. They present problems that we must solve because they exist and require upkeep! How is it profitable to wonder whether they are bad or good? Where do nonsensical arguements like that come from?? Some of the responders gave long and crazy economic arguments, including some math stuff, about parsing the fixing of the streets, sewers, water mains and bridges. While they were typing, another bridge settled down a few inches as a support cracked, and a pot hole developed in a freeway. I have decided that this sort of person simply can't think about problems in a common sense, practical way. They can only approach infrastructure repair as a sort of parlor game, head trip or exercise in sounding smart about taxes and the perfidity of the government. Here's what I believe in: orderly middle of the road life. I want the bridges to be safe to cross, the sewage to be delivered to the treatment plant without it making little detours here and there into water mains and basements, and I want the water coming from the tap to be drinkable. I will pay for this, because it is something we all need and we all need to pay for, and also because orderly civil life is part of civic pride. The phrase "civic pride" was a watchword of the Michigan I grew up in. What happened?
jamies jacob
Sat, 06/11/2016 - 7:53am
Phil, Snyder created a commission! I interpret that as kicking the issue down the road (pun intended). Did Snyder form a commission when he gave business interests a $1.5 Billion tax break? Did he form a commission when he signed a revised emergency manager law when the public just voted to repeal the emergency manager law? Did he form a commission when he signed legislation to make Michigan a right to work state? Regardless of your position on the above legislation, creating a commission is not how issues get addressed it is how issues are delayed and buried.