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Two Roads to Relieve Congestion

Granholm promotes alternatives; Posthumus wants new

November 3, 2002 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Patrick Owen
  The contrasting transportation policies promoted by the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates would carry Michigan in two very different directions, with implications not only for ease of travel but also for the well being of the state’s urban and natural environments.

On the eve of Michigan’s gubernatorial vote, the difference in the candidates’ transportation platforms has widened like a relentless crack in the road, inching along until a gulf finally opened.
Democratic candidate Jennifer Granholm has elevated road repair and opposition to new highways as her top transportation priority, pleasing labor unions, big city interests, and environmentalists.

Republican nominee Dick Posthumus has satisfied the road and home-building lobbies by turning his attention to bringing in more state and federal tax revenues to repair and vastly expand the nearly 10,000-mile state road network.

The contrasting transportation policies would carry Michigan in two very different directions, with implications not only for ease of travel but also for the well being of the state’s urban and natural environments.

Summed up if Ms. Granholm, the state attorney general, is elected Michigan can anticipate less congestion because roads will be in much better condition and there will be more choices for getting around. To her, road policy is a tool for managing growth and preserving open space. “I’d make it a priority to fix existing roads, rather than build new ones that contribute to urban sprawl,” says Ms. Granholm.

If Mr. Posthumus is elected his pro-highway policies —which he is convinced will reduce congestion — could instead accelerate the exodus from Michigan’s cities, increase sprawl, and produce more traffic, say experts. His official platform, called “Moving Michigan Forward,” contains no mention of transportation’s connection to land use, nor congestion-fighting options such as public transit, bicycle lanes, and sidewalks.

The wider highways Mr. Posthumus envisions would encourage more driving and longer trips, and spur residential and commercial growth far from urban centers and jobs. “I’d continue the current level of spending on road improvements, but shift the focus to increasing capacity and modernizing the transportation system to reduce congestion,” Mr. Posthumus says.

Ms. Granholm, however, believes well-maintained roads, world-class public transit, and options for bicycling and walking enhance mobility and contribute to compact and convenient communities.
“Fix It First” Catches on Across Michigan
From the start of the race, the inherently conservative concept of repairing roads before building new ones took root in the campaigns of both major parties. Pollsters confirmed what common sense dictated: Michigan motorists deeply desire relief from the plague of pothole-pocked roads. A Detroit News poll last summer put road conditions in the top tier of voter concerns, trailing only the economy and education in importance. A survey by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, Detroit’s regional planning body, ranked patching potholes as the top transportation concern of residents.

The candidates responded with their versions of the antidote.
Ms. Granholm developed a “Fix It First, Fix It Right” road policy to save money and strengthen cities.

Mr. Posthumus also embraces the “Fix it First” approach, but goes much further by promoting a massive new roads spending program.

Taking better care of infrastructure — roads, sewers, water systems, and schools — rather than building more of the same is an approach embraced in growing quarters across Michigan. Metropolitan Grand Rapids employs an “urban service district” that seeks to contain sprawl, improve its regional sewer system, and promote urban redevelopment. In April, Detroit’s first ring of suburban communities formed the Michigan Suburbs Alliance to lobby for more state and federal investment in infrastructure in cities, and not on the sprawling metropolitan  fringe.

"It was really the byproduct of a yearlong discussion between city leaders about the increasing level of stress on inner ring suburbs," said alliance leader Jim Townsend. "Stress in terms of fiscal stress, budgetary pressure, economic problems, issues relating to struggling commercial districts, issues dealing with the burden of replacing and replacing again infrastructure. These were the concerns of this group."

Metropolitan Detroit’s faith-based, social justice, and environmental groups laid much of the groundwork during the last several years to propel the fix-it-first movement to the top of the municipal and political agenda. Their efforts climaxed in September with a public rally in Detroit that drew 5,000 people, including both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, as well as Ms. Granholm and Loren Bennett, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

“The meeting was both powerful and historic in terms of the numbers, diversity of the crowd and the commitments from high level public officials,” said Vicky Kovari, a lead organizer of the event for MOSES, or the Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, a the faith-based group.

Michigan’s Costly Road Repair Crisis
Michigan’s roadways could use a heavy dose of MOSES’ fix-it-first medicine. More than half of the state’s roads need to be dug up and replaced in the next seven years, according to Michigan Department of Transportation data. About 30% of state roads — those with a M, U.S, or I- designation — have two or fewer years left before needing complete reconstruction.

The decrepit state of Michigan’s roads is costing the public billions of dollars in two specific ways: deferred maintenance and damage to vehicles.

Since launching its preventive maintenance program in 1991, the state Department of Transportation estimates that its efforts have saved taxpayers more than $1 billion. The blue-collar work of filling potholes, cracks, and joints can extend a road’s lifetime by an average of seven years, yielding a five-fold financial savings versus allowing the roadway to crumble and require complete rehabilitation, according to Alan Friend, a manager in MDOT’s repair program. What’s left unsaid, however, is that MDOT has foregone perhaps billions more dollars in savings by not further accelerating its repair efforts.

Motorists pay a second time when rough roads pound their tires, shocks, and muffler systems. Bad pavement costs Detroit motorists about $600 a year in car repairs; in Flint it’s about $525 annually, Grand Rapids about $480, and in Lansing about $470, according to the Road Information Project, a national association of road and insurance interests.

Aiming Too Low and Hitting the Target
For his part, Mr. Posthumus claims leadership as a proponent of road maintenance as lieutenant governor and calls for sustained spending on road repair and a “shift” in state policy to widen and build new highways.

In 1997, Republican Governor John Engler and Mr. Posthumus set a goal of moving 85 percent of state highways and 95 percent of state freeways into “good or fair” shape by 2007. A few years later, the Engler administration and MDOT dropped the word “fair” because it did not sound impressive enough, said an agency spokesman.

But the actual road repair target remained the same and astonishingly inadequate. While never conveyed to the public, MDOT’s self-appointed definition of a “good” road is any one with more than two years of useful life remaining before it must be torn up and rebuilt.

This has allowed MDOT to assert that nearly all state routes are “good” now, but public opinion polls indicate motorists are skeptical. In addition, there’s been no talk about sustaining state roads in good condition perpetually, once the 2007 objective is met. The next governor will have his or her hands full when spring comes and the potholes pop.

To be fair, the current administration deserves credit for helping to substantially increase the amount of state and federal funds that flow to Michigan’s road system.

In 1997, Gov. Engler and Mr. Posthumus pushed for a four-cent increase in the gasoline tax and a hike in some other transportation-related fees. The proposal passed the legislature and raised about $300 million more a year for roads.

In addition, Congress approved a new federal transportation bill in 1998 and boosted Michigan’s share by another $300 million, or 61 percent, over the previous law. Some of that money has improved Michigan’s roads, which were in sorry shape when Gov. Engler first occupied the executive office in January 1991.

But his administration also unveiled and pressed hard for a $6 billion laundry list of new highway proposals — in Alpena, Grand Haven, Jackson, Petoskey, and Traverse City — and a multibillion-dollar plan for widening existing roads.

In fact, starting in 2001, Mr. Posthumus built his name recognition by crisscrossing the state and announcing fresh road projects, such as the proposed 27-mile bypass of Grand Haven, which farmers hotly oppose because it would pave over the state’s most productive agricultural land and release a torrent of sprawl across west Michigan. The citizen opposition has been equally strong elsewhere, beating back most of the new highway projects.

Diesel Debate
Mr. Posthumus and Ms. Granholm both support Gov. Engler’s proposed 4-cent increase in the diesel fuel tax, which would raise up to $90 million a year for transportation. The initiative enjoys broad support in both political parties, but has drawn enormous public debate about where the new revenues should be directed. Gov. Engler would use the money to issue $500 million in bonds for new and wider roads under his Build Michigan III program. Nearly all transportation-policy groups, however, support directing new diesel proceeds to state and local roads and public transit, as current law demands.
Mr. Posthumus and Ms. Granholm have been vague about how they’d spend the money. Judging by their transportation platforms, though, Mr. Posthumus would finance the governor’s new road plan and Ms. Granholm would re-invest in existing, worn-out roads.

Sometimes lost in the complex maze of road conditions and financing is Michigan’s gaping need for congestion-relieving alternatives to driving, as well as options for those who — because of age, income, or disability — cannot drive. Both candidates say they support the push for a regional transit agency in metropolitan Detroit, with Mr. Posthumus even suggesting that a rail line be located within the median of I-94 in Detroit. But when pressed on the need to ratchet up state transit funding, Ms. Granholm offers a resounding “yes” and Mr. Posthumus supports the status quo “until we can guarantee taxpayer money is being spent effectively and efficiently on transit.”

Mr. Posthumus applies no such litmus test to the state road system. With a projected $1 billion-plus state budget deficit on the horizon, Michigan’s next governor would be wise to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of expanding a road system that the state already struggles to maintain.

Kelly Thayer is transportation project manager at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at Kelly@mlui.org.

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