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On the Bumpy Road to Lansing, Again

Citizens attend hearing to oppose lawmakers’ transportation policies

June 1, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Vicky Kovari/MOSES
  MOSES, a Detroit-area activist group, joined other Michigan citizens in Lansing last Tuesday to again urge the Republican-led Legislature to improve state funding for public transportation and repair old roads before building new ones.

LANSING — It was a quite varied group that boarded a charter bus in Detroit in the early morning hours after Memorial Day.  Young, old, black, white, some blind, some wearing bright yellow hard hats proclaiming “Fix It First,” they bounced their way along ragged roads to the state capital to join other like-minded folks who had come from across the state.

Tired of the political maneuvering they saw going on in the Republican-led state Legislature, they delivered two straightforward messages to the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee. Please, they told the committee, get serious about properly funding bus systems across the state and fixing Michigan’s highways — among the nation’s worst. And please, they added, understand that what you do will make a big difference to many people.

“You have the ability to make a tremendous impact and a tremendous improvement in people’s lives,” said Richard Bernstein, a blind trial attorney and member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors.

Clearly, Mr. Bernstein and his fellow travelers feared that exactly the opposite was happening.

Those fears are well founded. Earlier in the month, the Senate passed a transportation budget that, for the first time in recent memory, rolled back state support for local bus service. In a punitive shot at metropolitan Detroit, the Senate took the money solely from metropolitan Detroit’s two bus systems. The same body also passed a bill mandating a sharp change in funding priorities for state highways — some of the worst maintained in the nation — from “fix it first” to “fix it later.”

Fix It, but When?
The outcry at the hearing was another chapter in a highly charged battle over funding for the Michigan Department of Transportation that pits Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm against a Legislature that seems determined to score points against her.

The struggle began in January, when the new governor moved to keep her “fix it first” campaign promise to rebuild the state’s badly deteriorated road system before adding still more miles of asphalt. To pay for those repairs in the face of historic budget deficits, Ms. Granholm delayed four planned widening projects. Three months later she followed that up with a major initiative, which she called Preserve First, freezing nearly three dozen more new-pavement projects that her predecessor, former Governor John Engler, had previously approved. Her action freed up approximately another $400 million for road repair.

But the Legislature responded by trying to put the brakes on the governor’s repair plan. It punched its accelerator and quickly passed its own “Priorities First” package that restores the costly new-pavement projects. They did so in pursuit of a political advantage; apparently they believe Michiganders still want a lot more roads. Their action certainly made many homebuilder and real estate lobbyists happy; many contribute to Republican election campaigns. They even succeeded in dividing Democrats; six senators abandoned their popular governor and went along for the Republican-sponsored ride.

For maddened motorists, the political translation is simple: The Legislature will fix it later.

“We’ve got a very delicate balance we’re trying to maintain to keep the state moving forward,” said a Macomb County committee member, Republican Representative Daniel Acciavatti, of his support for the new road projects, which he claimed would help spur the economy. But it’s an approach that’s guaranteed to keep the wheels of the state’s road repair program spinning in place.

From Bad to Worst
Gov. Granholm’s bold moves, which represent Michigan’s new reckoning with the spiraling costs of transportation and the stark fiscal realities of the current economic downturn, indicate that she understands three new truths about efficiently and effectively enhancing 21st century mobility. First, aggressive road repair saves the government and motorists billions of dollars a years. Second, continually adding lanes ultimately brings more, not less, traffic congestion. Third, allowing roads to rot undermines communities and their economic well-being.

One of the two Democrats at the hearing stood up strongly for the governor’s determination to pull Michigan out of its pothole problem.

“If we have a maintenance program, it’s the best kept secret in the state,” said Wayne County Representative Jim Plakas. He described the current approach to road repair as “total neglect.”

The facts are on Rep. Plakas’ side. Earlier this year, an analysis of Federal Highway Administration figures by The Road Improvement Project, a national lobbying group for road-builders, rated the condition of Michigan’s interstate highways as the nation’s fifth worst, and its interstate bridges as the very worst. In February, a study of the state transportation department’s own data by the Michigan Land Use Institute found that about 20 percent of the state’s roads need full removal and reconstruction right now, while another 60 percent have just seven or fewer years left before they also need the same treatment.

And on the same day as the hearing, USA Today pegged metro Detroit as fifth-worst nationally for the cost of repairing road-battered vehicles — an estimated $621 a year per motorist.

People First, Please
At the hearing, citizens also spoke out for those who can’t afford cars, much less keep them in good repair. They said that neglecting roads and bus service amounts to unwise disinvestments in the places where people already live, in favor of places where they don’t — the quintessential example of a state subsidizing its own already severe sprawl problem.

"Given the depth of Michigan's fiscal crisis, we must first fix what we have and, at the same time, protect what little transportation services there are for the poor, the disabled, and the elderly," said Kara Williams, leader of MOSES, a faith-based metropolitan Detroit coalition seeking to strengthen communities by better investing in infrastructure and services.

That is why MOSES and a coalition of groups led by the Institute and the Michigan Environmental Council continue to press the state to direct at least 90 percent of road funds to repair, rather than the 69 percent for maintenance that occurred during the Engler administration, and to increase funding for public transportation.

One Republican who was sympathetic to the call for better transit funding was Representative Jerry Kooiman. That’s because he’s from Grand Rapids, a region that not only boasts one of the state’s very few, effective regional bus systems, but also displays a strong belief in the economic benefits of curbing sprawl through regional planning. He agreed that transit funding cuts, which the governor proposed and the Senate deepened and directed at Detroit, would “move us in the wrong direction.”

Holding the Line
Gov. Granholm will have the last say on roads and public transportation, thanks to the line-item veto, another holdover from the Engler era. Her administration says it will hold its ground. Two days after the hearing, state transportation Director Gloria Jeff presented a draft five-year road plan to the Michigan Transportation Commission, which sets department policy. None of the hotly debated widening projects that the Legislature is trying to restore were in the mix.

“At the end of the day,” Ms. Jeff told the commission, “the fact is that too many of Michigan’s high-volume, high-value roads are in poor condition, and we neglect them at our own economic peril.”

That’s just what the citizens who traveled to Lansing wanted to hear.

“Our cities have become havens for automobiles,” Scenic Michigan President Debbie Rohe, an Institute board member who traveled to the capital from Petoskey, told the Tuesday hearing. “Meanwhile, the elderly, our young, and people with disabilities are alienated in their own communities. Your efforts will ensure our children have a hometown worthy of their affection.”

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and manages the Institute's statewide project to reform transportation and land use policy. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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