Michigan roads are infamously bad. But sewers and dams are in rough shape too

Even with new funding to pay for roads, Michigan’s infrastructure is aging rapidly. Solutions are not only expensive but politically divisive in an era of divided government. (Shutterstock image)

Michigan’s infrastructure is in tough shape, from potholed roads and deteriorating bridges to aging sewers and dams in dire need of maintenance.

A panel appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2016 following the Flint water crisis concluded Michigan needed $4 billion more a year for upkeep of that infrastructure, as well as communications systems. In 2018, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the state infrastructure as a D+, calling it “old and outdated.”

This year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took out $3.5 billion in bonds to pay for five years of road repairs. Both the Democratic governor and Republicans agree that’s not enough money for long-term repairs, but her 2019 plan to raise gas taxes 45 cents a gallon to raise $2.5 billion a year went nowhere.

The bill is coming due: A 2016 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that delaying needed repairs could cost U.S. GDP nearly $4 trillion by 2025, and American households $3,400 annually in disposable income. By 2025, U.S. businesses could lose 2.5 million jobs as a result of poor infrastructure conditions, according to ASCE.

What’s at stake in Michigan

More than a third of Michigan’s roadways are considered in poor shape, according to the nonpartisan state Senate Fiscal Agency. And 1,196 of the state’s 11,228 bridges were considered structurally deficient in 2018, a slight improvement from previous years, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association

Roads and bridges primarily are funded by Michigan’s gasoline tax and fees charged to drivers for registering their vehicles with the state. The gas tax is 26.3 cents per gallon (and will be increased according to inflation in 2022). The tax increased in 2015 as part of a plan that raised $1.2 billion annually for transportation. Critics contend that’s not enough, as fuel efficiencies increase and roads deteriorate.

Without new revenue, two-thirds of Michigan’s roads could be in poor shape by 2028, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency.

Water and sewer

The Flint water crisis was a national wake-up call about the importance of infrastructure and controversy about lead pipes, as a switch in supply caused the city’s drinking water to become contaminated by lead. 

Amid the fallout, state lawmakers passed one of the toughest laws in the nation about lead pipes, requiring municipalities to replace all 500,000 statewide within 20 years. 

But water and sewer systems across the state are struggling, as lead remains a problem in dozens of municipal systems and delayed maintenance increasingly is causing sinkholes in Detroit, Macomb County and other communities.  A 2016 state task force found municipal systems needed $16 billion over the next 20 years for maintenance. But money is hard to come by, as plumbing efficiencies have caused a significant decline in usage. In Detroit, the city has shut off water to more than 100,000 homes for nonpayment since 2014 in an effort to increase revenue.

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Barry Visel
Mon, 02/10/2020 - 7:14pm

Local roads and water and sewer infrastructure are LOCAL issues, not State or Federal issues. Regarding water and sewer systems, can anyone name any community that charges rates sufficient to maintain, and replace when necessary, this infrastructure? We build it and immediately forget there is a lifecycle cost. And when that cost comes due we want the State or Feds to pick up the cost...really? Regarding local roads, many of them are in subdivisions built by developers who then turn them over to local or county road commissions who don’t have a revenue source sufficient to maintain them...and then look to State or Feds to pick up the cost (I.e., you and me). This process has to stop. If infrastructure is built, then there needs be a financial plan to replace it when needed.

Ben W. Washburn
Tue, 03/10/2020 - 9:18am

Partly right Barry, but also very wrong. Not all roads mainly serve a local purpose. The county mile roads mainly serve a much broader purpose, enabling customers to get to business places, enabling manufacturing plants to bring in materials and parts, and then to get their products out to market. These are regional and state-wide benefits. And today, even residential streets serve a broader and broader purpose; ecommerce and same-day delivery depend upon good local roads to enable that fast and efficient delivery.
The larger cost of our sewerage systems is driven by federally mandated effluent standards, which provide no specific benefit to the individual household, but which impose a cost burden upon the users of the older systems that is ten times greater than borne by the users of brand new systems. Federal mandates should be fully paid for from federal revenue.

Mike Radke
Tue, 02/11/2020 - 8:49am

Interesting article repeating the facts of the dire condition of roads and bridges. But other than the headlines, it says nothing about sewers and damns. Give us the facts about these critical pieces of infrastructure and the consequences of delaying permanent fixes.