Outlook mixed on Michigan’s effort to ‘fix the damn roads’

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Capital News Service

LANSING — With a new presidential administration and an expressed willingness for bipartisan cooperation from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, advocates of better roads and infrastructure say they have mixed expectations about increased funding and improved federal guidance.

The governor made it clear that she hasn’t forgotten about the policy promise that helped get her elected, as evidenced by her references to the “Fix the Damn Roads” slogan in her recent State of the State address. 

She touted the Rebuilding Michigan Bonding Plan of 2020 as evidence that the state can “walk and chew gum at the same time” by tackling COVID-19 and the deteriorating infrastructure simultaneously. 

Whitmer also boasted of large interstate highway renovation projects in Oakland County and Lansing.

Whitmer’s plans for infrastructure improvements in 2021 include asking the Legislature to increase funding for local government projects, as well as a $500 million MI Clean Water Plan.

The Michigan Association of Counties, issued a statement supporting  infrastructure’s spotlight in Whitmer’s address.

 “We appreciate Gov. Whitmer’s call to improve our local roads and infrastructure,”  association executive director Stephan Currie said. “While this is not a new topic at the state Capitol, or at the local diner, it is a critical one.”

The association’s director of governmental affairs, Deena Bosworth, also noted support for increased local funding of Whitmer’s clean water initiatives.

Reactions from county road commissions varied.

A representative from the Wayne County Department of Public Services commented after Whitmer’s address.

“Our state and federal governments have made it clear that they understand the need to increase funding and address critical improvements to infrastructure,” said communications director Tiffani Jackson. 

“As the largest county road agency in the state of Michigan, the Wayne County Department of Public Services remains hopeful, committed and supportive of any form of a stimulus package, both local and federal, that may assist us in continuing the mission of improving our infrastructure.”

Todd Behring, the managing director of the Montmorency County Road Commission, said he doesn’t believe that Whitmer has made a significant difference in the condition of his county’s roads.

“I don’t think her election had anything to do with our roads getting better because the funding was put in place before she stepped in,” he said. “As far as the funding she’s put in place, it has helped the state roads, but we didn’t really receive any of that at the county level.”

On the federal level, some advocates of greater spending on roads and bridges say they’re pleased by the nomination of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg to be the U.S. secretary of Transportation.

Dan Gilmartin, the executive director and CEO of the Michigan Municipal League, said he is cautiously optimistic about increased federal support for infrastructure projects. 

“There’s a lot of goodwill right now,” he said. “President [Joe] Biden has talked a lot about communities and talks a lot about the issues of helping local units of government.

“When it comes to some of his appointments, there’s a lot of mayors sprinkled out there,” Gilmartin continued. “There’s certainly a knowledge of what happens at city hall — what goes on at a local level — in the administration.”

Buttigieg made his priorities for the position clear in testifying at his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing, saying, “I look forward to working with our partners at the state, local, territorial and tribal levels to find solutions to our infrastructure issues while we also prepare for the future of transportation at a time of great change.”

Robert Laitinen, of the Chippewa County Road Commission, said he doesn’t have particularly high hopes for the new administration.

“I have not heard or seen any details released on that. There’s been some speech that’s put out there, but I’ve seen no concrete plans or information that would lead me to believe that that’s going to happen,” Laitinen said.

“But yes, I have definite hopes that something’s going to occur that’s going to put some real investment back into our system, because it’s sorely needed,” he added.

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