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As days pass, state's journey to fix for roads gets bumpier

Monday, October 28, 2013   (0 Comments)
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LANSING -- Discussions on how to craft a deal to raise roughly $1.2 billion more annually to improve the state's roads and bridges have largely occurred out of sight since late spring. But talks in Lansing are more visible now -- as is the cautious optimism surrounding getting a deal done by the end of the year.

Last week, Director Kirk Steudle of the Michigan Department of Transportation testified before a joint hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and House Appropriations Transportation subcommittee.

He was asked often about the cost cutting he has done in recent years in his own department to free more money for the roads. But efficiency-building can't squeeze a billion dollars out of his budget to buy more asphalt and steel.

"It's about investment," he said. "We need $1.2 billion."

And actually, that number is larger now, he said, than the number Gov. Rick Snyder used in his State of the State address back in January. Steudle didn't have an exact figure.

"It just continues to go up," he said.

The original request from Snyder to raise $1.2 billion annually was to ensure the state could keep 90 percent of its roadways in fair condition.

Last year, Steudle said, the state was at 87 percent, and his department projects that to drop to 84 percent this year when the final report comes in this month.

MDOT is responsible for 10,000 miles of roads and highways in the state. When 84 percent of the roads are in fair condition, that means about 1,600 miles of roads in Michigan are in poor condition right now, he said.

"They are going to continue to get worse every year," he said. "Further delays mean we go further down that path. Next year, it will be lower than that."

But Steudle said he was encouraged just that lawmakers wanted to have a meeting to restart discussing the issue publicly.

Michael Nystrom, executive vice president of the Okemos-based Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, said he also was glad to see the discussions return to a public setting.

"The rest of the elected officials need to understand the dire circumstances we are in," Nystrom said. "We're going in the wrong direction, and we're going there fast."

And if nothing is done, it is possible that something tragic could happen in Michigan, Nystrom said -- like the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people.

"Something will fall down at some point," he said. "We will have something that causes an accident."

Speaking with reporters Thursday, Snyder said he has been talking with the four top legislative leaders of both parties in the House and Senate about transportation funding.

"There still is some opportunity for a comprehensive solution," Snyder said.

But there has been an opportunity to do this for the past two years, just not the political will among lawmakers to vote to raise taxes or fees to bring in the revenue necessary.

It has been 734 days since Snyder delivered his special message on transportation and infrastructure, where he called for additional annual revenue of between $1 billion and $1.4 billion. Every day that passes, he said in that speech, Michigan loses $3 million in the value of its transportation assets.

That comes out to roughly $2.2 billion in lost value of the state's transportation assets since then.

Short of a comprehensive solution, Snyder said, his administration will look at how to put budget resources toward dealing with the issue incrementally.

But Nystrom said that won't be enough. "We can't continue to do Band-Aid fixes or throwing a little bit of one-time money at it each year," he said.

"There has to be some political fortitude to do what's right."

Chris Gautz: (517) 403-4403, Twitter: @chrisgautz

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