Economic Development and Travel & Tourism

Transportation issues dominate discussion

October 3, 2014
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Ambassador Bridge
The Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Canada sees more than 70,000 truck crossings a day. Courtesy

Michigan’s roadways and bridges obviously are on the minds of West Michigan policymakers and community leaders.

Transportation and infrastructure was voted the No. 1 issue by attendees of the West Michigan Policy Forum Sept. 28-29 at the Amway Grand Plaza, earning 37 percent of the vote.

Kirk Steudle, Michigan director of transportation, and Canada’s Consul General Doug George each spoke about key transportation and infrastructure issues facing Michigan.

Steudle focused his comments on the continued underfunding of Michigan’s roadways, which he said is not sustainable.

“We struggle every day to figure out how we use the money we have as efficiently as possible,” Steudle said.

When asked about the impact of underfunding, Steudle said Michigan is no longer looking at future concerns but rather is facing those concerns on a daily basis.

“We are going over the cliff,” he said. “In the next two years, you are going to start to see things decline significantly.”

He noted that every year the government chose to underfund the Michigan Department of Transportation has increased the price tag for fixes in the future.

“We’ve delayed, it’s cost us money, and the more we delay, the more it will cost us to get back,” he said.

When asked what the plan is if the underfunding continues, Steudle painted a bleak picture.

“Without (proper funding), if we are going to live within our means, I would advise getting four-wheel drive and some really big tires,” he said. “It will be nasty.”

Steudle said Michigan’s 10,000 miles of roadway require $1 billion to maintain them to the standards set by the State Transportation Commission in 1997, but MDOT only receives approximately $600 million annually.

Under current State Transportation Commission policy, freeways are to be maintained to 95 percent in good quality and non-freeways at 85 percent in good quality.

“Obviously, we can’t keep 95 percent and 85 percent in good condition,” Steudle said.

He said one option is to lower the standards.

“We are actually having the conversation,” he said. “Maybe the national and international freeway routes goal should be 90 percent; the freeway and non-freeway statewide routes maybe should be 80 percent; the regional important routes, maybe those need to be 70; the local important routes, maybe 60.

“People need to understand what that looks like. What 60 percent looks like means 40 percent of them are really bad and many of them are turning back to gravel.”

Steudle said MDOT is doing several things to try to increase efficiency with the funding it has. The first is a move toward a paper-free process.

“We just completed about 30 projects completely paperless, the largest being a seven-mile reconstruction of I-96 through Livonia … without a single sheet of paper. … In October, every single project will be done in this fashion; it’s called an E-project.”

While he acknowledges it might not sound all that substantial, by creating a paper-free process, MDOT is saving 7 million sheets of paper.

It also makes Michigan a leader.

“This is the only project, and project of this size or this type, going on anywhere in the entire country — and I believe anywhere in the world — where there is zero paper,” he said.

Michigan is following closely in Utah’s footsteps by converting to a new bridge construction process for some bridges that drastically reduces road closure durations. The bridge is constructed off to the side during a three-to-four-month period and then, once completed, is moved into place over a couple of days.

One Michigan bridge was just completed this way and another is in the middle of construction.

Steudle said innovations in concrete and asphalt also provide savings and a longer lifecycle to roadways.

“There are a lot of new processes and new concretes coming forward, and I can tell you the concrete we put down today is significantly different than it was 10 years ago,” he said.

The other big topic discussed during the transportation session centered on the new international bridge planned between Detroit and Windsor and its importance to the future prosperity of Michigan and the United States.

George pointed out Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner — larger even than China, Japan and the United Kingdom combined.

“We buy more stuff from you than anybody else,” George said.

Putting that in numbers, he noted, bilateral trade breaks down to $734 billion a year, $2 billion a day and $1.4 million a minute.

Michigan on its own has a significant trade relationship with Canada.

“Here in Michigan, the numbers are very impressive,” George said. “You enjoy a $75 billion trade relationship with Canada. We purchase 44 percent of all of your global exports. When it comes to jobs, 218,000 Michigan jobs depend on this trade.”

He said Michigan’s exports to Ontario are four times the value of the state’s exports to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.

The bridge is an important aspect to growing this valuable trade relationship, which is why both Canada and Michigan are moving forward with the bridge project. Canada has agreed to foot the bill for almost the entire project cost, with the exception of the U.S. Customs Plaza.

The bridge is slated to be operational in 2020, and the hope and expectation is the federal government will kick in the funds for the customs plaza allowing for the project’s completion.

“For Canada, this has been our No. 1 infrastructure priority for nearly 10 years,” George said.

The existing Ambassador Bridge sees more than 70,000 truck crossings a day. That number is expected to double over the next 30 years, further necessitating the need for a second bridge.

George also highlighted the importance of speeding up crossings while still maintaining security at the bridge.

“After 9/11 it got very difficult to cross the border, and this has impeded the flow of goods, people and services,” he said. “We are closely cooperating, working on perimeter security … to make it more efficient.”

He noted the possibility of a Trusted Traders program that could speed up the process for truckers crossing the bridge multiple times during a day.

Gov. Rick Snyder also emphasized the importance of Michigan investing in its transportation infrastructure when he addressed the West Michigan Policy Forum crowd earlier in the day.

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