What new $3.5 billion road bonding plan could mean for rural Michigan

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By JOE DANDRON
Capital News Service

LANSING — County road officials and many legislators say they’re disappointed that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s $3.5 billion road bonding plan addresses only a small part of Michigan’s road problems.

The bonds would fund work on only state-owned roads, leaving 74% of Michigan’s 120,256 road miles out of the equation.

“I’m challenged by it,” Montcalm County Road Commission manager Mark Christensen said of the bonding decision. “Let’s have some priority where we all can see value in it.”

“We need a little piece of the pie somewhere,” he said.

The plan for the most highly traveled state roads is part of Whitmer’s promise to “fix all the dangerous roads in Michigan,” she said during her annual State of the State address.

For rural Michigan and roads maintained at the county level, that doesn’t send help.

“We’re concerned the general public is going to assume we have fixed the problem,” said Ed Noyola, the deputy director of the Michigan County Road Association. “We have not.”

“We appreciate fixing the backbone of the state, but when your feet are broken, it’s still hard to get around,” Noyola said.

The vast majority of roads in Michigan are maintained at the county and city level.

For example, Lake, Kalkaska and Montmorency counties each control about 90% of the road miles within their borders, according to the Michigan Association of Counties.

Some critics oppose the state borrowing money for roads.

For example, Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, said, “I am more than happy to work with the governor on a realistic road funding plan. But putting it on a credit card for taxpayers to worry about later is not the answer. It’s part of the problem.”

“We’re still paying $200 million each year on bonding debt from nearly two decades ago,” Bollin said.

And Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said, “It’s a nonsensical plan that will have far-reaching effects on our future generations. We’ve bonded almost $2.5 billion for roads since 1992 and we’re still behind the eight ball with some of the worst roads in the country.”

Republican lawmakers last year torpedoed Whitmer’s proposed 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike to pay for road projects, including local ones.

The morning after Whitmer’s address, the state Transportation Commission unanimously approved the sale of $3.5 billion in 25-year bonds to finance the repair projects. 

County road commissions and departments would be unaffected by the bonding plan. 

For now, local roads will have to wait for extra funding on top of the 39% share they get from fuel tax and vehicle registration revenues through the Michigan Transportation Fund.

Metro Detroit’s state roads will receive much of the projected new funding. 

The Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced 20 new projects in Genesee County alone in its updated five-year plan.

“The pavement is by far the worst in Southeast Michigan,” said MDOT communications director Jeff Cranson. “I think the (county) frustration is misguided.”

“The biggest thing people don’t understand is that state law grants MDOT the authority to bond against the State Trunkline Fund. This tool has been used numerous times by the past several administrations,” Cranson said.

State trunk lines are numbered I, M and U.S. routes, Cranson said.

Cranson said that with 57% of traffic on the 9,700 miles of state trunk line, the new bonding effort is the best way for the governor to act now.

He said some of the state projects could be done this year, while the five-year schedule will allow private contractors to plan ahead and secure equipment and workers.

 And much of the work needed on county roads could be helped by bonding at the local level, he said

Noyola said part of the concern surrounding new MDOT projects is that it will cause higher traffic on county roads that need repair as well. 

“It’s up to the Legislature what the fix is going to be,” he said.