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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

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.”

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