Guest Column

Public investment in transportation essential to Michigan’s success

September 5, 2014
| By Lou Glazer |
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In a GRBJ editorial (Aug. 11), Carole Valade wrote: “The Business Journal emphasizes the unfinished business of infrastructure investment in Michigan. ... In fact, the issue is not just related to road and highway repair, the lack of which is costing Michigan businesses millions of dollars. It is the whole of infrastructure: decaying roads, power lines and electric grids; technology infrastructure; even water supply lines now 100 years old or more. Continued neglect is shameful enough, but the very ability of businesses to grow and function is gravely compromised.”

Exactly! When I started working in economic development more than 30 years ago — time does fly when you are having fun — conventional wisdom was that the state’s chief role was education and infrastructure. They were considered the foundation on which the private sector could build a strong economy. Somehow that lesson has been lost over the years as we bought into the low tax/small government ideology.

In this post, I want to focus on transportation infrastructure — arguably the most important and easiest to fund infrastructure. 

For the first time ever, the state legislature can’t even pass a much-needed gas tax to fix our roads, despite nearly unanimous support from the business community. 

In the 20th century, Michigan built one of the nation’s great highway systems. Today, we are a national laggard. Lansing — on a bipartisan basis — seems willing to let our roads disintegrate rather than pay for their upkeep. And we are even further away from developing a 21st century transit system — a key to retaining and attracting mobile young talent who are the drivers of future economic growth. Not smart!

In Metro Grand Rapids, the news is a lot better, with passage of a city millage to repair roads and the launch of the state’s first bus rapid transit line: the Silver Line. Planning is underway for a second BRT line and there is some preliminary discussion about a light rail line.

All this is done both to provide citizens with more and better transportation options and also to stimulate development — particularly the kind of mixed-used, high-density development that is attracting mobile young professionals across the country.

While Lansing is on a path to letting our 20th century road system crumble, Metro Grand Rapids has embarked on building a 21st century transportation system. But the city and region can’t do it alone. Just as in the past, a quality transportation system needs state and federal funding.

Once again this is a major distinction between Michigan and Minnesota — the Great Lakes’ most prosperous state. Minnesota taxes gasoline at 28.6 cents a gallon — 9.6 cents a gallon more than Michigan’s 19 cents a gallon. Minnesota last raised its gas tax by 8.6 cents, including a 3.5 cent-a-gallon surcharge in 2008. Michigan last boosted its gas tax in 1997 from 15 cents a gallon.

The result: Minnesota ranks as the best road system in the Great Lakes, while Michigan is the worst. And, due in part to substantial state funding, Metro Minneapolis has a high-quality transit system with more and more light rail as the anchor.

Both Lansing and Washington need to quickly relearn the lessons that Metro Grand Rapids and Minnesota already have: that public investment in transportation, which requires taxes to pay for it, is essential to economic success today and tomorrow.   

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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