Road funding is key engineering issue

July 22, 2011
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The American Society of Civil Engineers of Michigan, the Michigan Society of Professional Engineers, and the state branch of the American Counsel of Engineering Companies all want Lansing to find a new way, or ways, to fund transportation.

“I’m not a politician or a financial guy, and I don’t claim to understand all the ins and outs of the budget. But from what I do understand, transportation is a pretty good chunk of it. From our observation in the engineering community, we think it’s a pretty important part of it because it positively impacts not just engineering but commerce within our state. We need good roads for vehicles to be able to move goods from place to place,” said John Condie, a principal and senior vice president at Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber and a past president of the MSPE.

“At MSPE, we represent professional engineers, but we’d like to think that we’re the voice of all engineers. There are engineers in the Department of Transportation, so they’re obviously impacted. There are engineers in construction, the companies that actually build the roads and bridges. And then there are a fair number of us in the industry that I fall in, which is private practice consulting, if you will, and we’re the folks that design roads, or improvements to roads and bridges. So there really is a good chunk of us impacted by transportation,” he added.

According to a report on the ASCEMI website, which features data from reputable sources, 38 percent of the state’s roads were found to be in poor or mediocre condition, and 25 percent of Michigan’s bridges were rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The report gave the state’s highway system a “D” grade and its bridges a “C.”

The report also said U.S. truckers rated Michigan roads as the third worst in the nation. On top of that, the Federal Highway Administration estimated that traffic from commercial trucking will go up by 50 percent in the state by 2020.

Right now, $389 billion in goods are trucked out of Michigan annually, while $407 billion are shipped into the state each year. But if the FHA estimate is right, those numbers will soar over the next nine years, and the state’s roads and bridges will deteriorate even further without proper repairs and maintenance.

Finding the necessary funding for infrastructure has been and continues to be a sticky issue that seemingly doesn’t have a solution right now. Receipts from the state’s gas and diesel taxes have been declining since 2006 and don’t yield enough revenue to meet the 20 percent match needed to capture federal dollars for road and bridge work.

Gov. Rick Snyder said last spring that he would address the issue this fall. Condie hopes the governor will take action on this issue as he has on other issues during his first six months in office.

“He’s definitely not kicking the can down the road like he said he wasn’t going to do. He is making some pretty wholesale changes,” said Condie, whose term as MSPE past president expired last month after heading the organization the previous year.

“We’ve been lobbying, literally, to all our legislators to make sure that transportation funding is included, especially so we get the match. … It’s a really good investment for the state to make.”

Condie pointed out that with the advent of all-electric vehicles, the state may not be able to rely solely on revenue from the gas and diesel taxes, which have dropped in part because autos have become more fuel efficient and fewer gallons are being purchased. He thinks Lansing needs to look at other means, such as registration fees and toll charges, which he said have worked in other states.

“A higher gas tax? Personally, I’m not in favor of higher taxes, but it may have to be some combination of additional revenue. But like Gov. Snyder says, ‘We can’t continue kicking the can down the road without looking at what we’re kicking the can towards.’”

A funding report published four years ago by the Reason Foundation, however, shows where that kicked can is currently headed. The report is full of lowlights for the state that will be coming in the not-too-distant future. Here are a few:

**The Michigan Department of Transportation will lose an average of $750 million per year through 2015, and local transportation agencies will lose an average of $204 million in each of those years because the state can’t provide matches for federal grants.

**A total of 23,000 road-lane miles will need to be repaired or replaced by 2015, while expected funding will pay for only 876 lane miles.

**An additional 30 percent of state roads will be in fair or poor condition by 2020.

“We can fix it now or we can fix it later. Well, we ought to be fixing it now,” said Condie. “We need to come up with some solutions that are long term.”

A taskforce made up of transportation and transit professionals was convened by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm a few years ago to make recommendations on how the state could increase funding for all modes of transportation, including air travel. After roughly 18 months of meetings, the group came up with 13 funding suggestions, but the state Legislature didn’t take any real action on any of them.

Ronald Brenke was the executive director of the MSPE when the taskforce was meeting and he told the Business Journal that the organization supported all of the recommendations made by the panel. “It’s disappointing that not much has been done with that. We pull that (report) out all the time and make reference to it all the time when we talk with legislators — and, really, anybody who is involved in transportation,” said Brenke, who is now executive director of both ASCEMI and ASCE.

Brenke felt a lack of leadership from both parties and from Granholm were the reasons action wasn’t taken on the funding suggestions. “I just think no one showed the leadership. The governor didn’t show leadership. Quite honestly, neither did the (Senate) majority leader or the House speaker at the time. Neither demonstrated any leadership to get anything passed. It was all partisan politics. Nobody wanted to go first. Nobody wanted to introduce anything, fearing that it would be used against them somehow in the next campaign,” he said.

“I think most people recognize that we have an issue — that we have a serious shortfall for funding — but there was no leadership. It was that simple. Someone had to blink first and no one did,” Brenke added.

The taskforce also estimated in 2008 that the state’s system of roads and bridges will need an annual investment of $6.1 billion, which was twice the current funding level at the time.

“We’ve got to get off of dead center. … I’m hoping it comes this fall when the governor does talk more specifically about transportation and infrastructure, and there is a plan. I’ve not heard what that plan is going to be. It’s liable to go into a multitude of directions. I think everything and anything is on the table when it comes to Gov. Snyder,” said Condie. “He’s not afraid to make some changes. I hope the changes are finding money to continue with transportation infrastructure funding.”

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