Guest Column

Fixing Michigan’s roads is not enough

September 21, 2018
| By Lou Glazer |
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If there is one issue that both candidates for governor seem to agree on it is that fixing the roads is a top priority. Good news in a state that for a decade or more let its 20th-century infrastructure crumble. But saying you are in favor of fixing the roads is not enough.

First, we need to know how they are going to pay to fix the roads. We need to shift from an economic strategy based on low taxes to one that recognizes taxes must be balanced with the need for public investments.

We need to regain the political will we had for most of the 20th century when we set user fees at the level required to have one of the nation’s best transportation systems. We understood that what we got from user fees was worth more than the cost of the fees. Michigan is now a national laggard in road funding, as it has historically been in public transportation funding.

Minnesota, the Great Lakes’ most prosperous state, spends per capita more than twice what Michigan does on transportation.

Second, just fixing the roads is not enough. It is clear autonomous vehicles are coming. It is a question of when, not if. And that means radical change in the industry that drives Michigan’s economy, in how we live our lives and how our communities are structured.

We need to shift from accepting a crumbling 20th-century infrastructure to providing a world-class 21st-century transportation infrastructure, where world-class 21st-century infrastructure means complete streets — designed for all modalities and for everyone — not just good roads. Moreover, one that is aligned with the transition to autonomous vehicles and mobility as a service; a world in which, almost certainly, fewer and fewer of us will own and/or drive a car as the primary way to get around.

Jim Hackett, president and CEO of Ford Motor Company, clearly understands Ford’s future is in transitioning from making vehicles to providing mobility services. In “Building the City of Tomorrow,” he writes:

“Henry Ford declared that he wanted to open the highways for all humankind, giving us extraordinary new freedom. Yet as our towns and cities were designed around the automobile, roads overtook community centers. Time we used to spend with each other is now often wasted in congestion and traffic. Thirty years ago, we spent an average of 16 hours in traffic per year; now, it’s 38 hours.

“Today, the transport systems of most global cities have reached capacity, yet more and more of us seek the benefits of great urban centers. Faced with this rapid urbanization, and the pollution and congestion that come with it, we have to admit that the model of the past is no longer tenable. We need to update cities to more efficiently move people and goods, improving the quality of life for all.

“Now is our opportunity to reclaim the streets for living:  to start building a true City of Tomorrow, reimagining how our streets and cities function more efficiently. With the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and the rise of autonomous and connected vehicles, we have technology capable of a complete disruption and redesign of the surface transportation system for the first time in a century. Everything from parking, traffic flow and goods delivery can be radically improved — reducing congestion and allowing cities to transform roads into more public spaces.

“That is why Ford is taking a user-centered, systems-level design approach to mobility. We need to step back and look broadly at how the overall transportation operating system can help us all lead better, more productive lives. We have begun by collaborating with cities, civic organizations, urban planners, technologists and designers around the world to develop new ways of moving people and goods.”

Columbus, Ohio, won the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge. Detroit and Port Huron were the only Michigan cities among the 77 applicants and neither was a finalist.

Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc. is an investor along with USDOT in the competition. They write of Columbus’ winning proposal, “Columbus will work to reshape its transportation system to become part of a fully-integrated city that harnesses the power and potential of data, technology, and creativity to reimagine how people and goods move throughout their city.”

This same kind of thinking is what Michigan needs from its next governor. A commitment to Michigan being ahead of the curve in the transition from making vehicles to providing mobility services for all.

So, the policy priority for Michigan is not more money to simply rebuild its current transportation system, it is to find the political will to do what we did for most of the last century: be a global leader in building the transportation system of the future.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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