Drive on any pothole-ridden street, and it’s clear: Michigan has an infrastructure problem. Solutions, though, aren’t so easy.
That’s partly because the cost of a solution, estimated at $4 billion annually, is so vast, according to experts Wednesday at Michigan Solutions Summit sponsored by The Center for Michigan and Bridge Magazine in East Lansing.
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“We are in peril at a variety of levels,” from roads, to water and sewer, to the state’s electrical grid, said John Walsh, state budget director under Gov. Rick Snyder.
The term-limited governor is pushing for fee increases to help pay for some of the improvements, including increasing fees to $4.75 per ton to dump trash in landfills to raise $79 million to replace an expiring bond fund used to clean up contaminated sites, and a $5 water surcharge to all state residents to raise $110 million for drinking water repairs.
The measures face a murky future in the state Legislature.
Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, said term limits make it difficult to come up with solutions because of the turnover in lawmakers.
Nystrom said he would like a 1 percent sales tax increase to raise more than $1 billion for infrastructure. That, however, would require an amendment to the state constitution.
Another possible solution: Public-private partnerships, which “are a new way of investing in government infrastructure, and we have to be open to those opportunities,” Nystrom said.
The state launched a pilot program intended to inventory the location and condition of multiple infrastructure systems across the state, with hopes it could lead to coordination among agencies such as road commissions and utilities. That could prevent a road from being torn up twice to repair pavement and, later, to fix something underground, Walsh said.
Nystrom criticized the road-funding plan the Legislature passed, and Snyder signed, in 2015, for taking too long to be fully implemented when roads are in crisis now. The plan will raise $1.2 billion for roads by 2021, with half from diverted general fund dollars and half from new revenue from higher gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.
Several panelists said the solution isn’t necessarily more money. Snyder appointed his 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, which in 2016 released a report with recommendations to fix Michigan’s failing infrastructure.
The report included ways that government can be more efficient when it comes to infrastructure, including new technology that can improve how roads are built, panelists said.
Joi Harris, vice president of gas operations for Detroit-based DTE Energy Co., said the utility is working to find more cost-efficient operations to avoid raising rates.
“Our teams are scouring the country, and even outside the country, to find ways to do this work more efficiently,” Harris said.