There are all sorts of things that government arguably should not be in the business of doing.
But improving the dismal roads and bridges of Michigan, the state that helped put the world on wheels, is not one of them — as Gov. Rick Snyder and a bipartisan collection of elected leaders are arguing as the state Legislature reconvenes today for its lame-duck session.
"Do you think anyone's going to want to base a transportation hub in our state when we have roads like we do, bridges like we do?" the governor said Monday at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. "Do you know anybody who says we have good roads in this state? Nobody."
Michigan's deteriorating roads and bridges are a national embarrassment, contradicting the narrative that the state's hometown automakers and its largest city are using restructuring and bankruptcy to chart new, competitive and more prosperous paths forward.
Not with potholes that routinely eat rims and blow tires. Or bridges that shed chunks of concrete, imperiling unsuspecting drivers. Or a gas tax that a) has not been increased since 1997 and b) is not used entirely to fund road repairs.
And not with a roads budget that lags Great Lakes neighbors and spends $1 billion less in each of the last eight years than neighboring Ohio — one more reason, if last Saturday's Ohio State-Michigan score isn't enough, for lawmakers to reckon with big Blue's transportation inadequacy.
Passing a controversial roads package this month would be a tough vote for legislators returning to Lansing. So what? Since when should a taxpayer-funded turn through the state House or Senate come with protection against tough votes?
It shouldn't. The political reality is that the Republican-controlled Legislature to be seated next month will be more conservative and more anti-tax than the current crop, the single most compelling reason the governor and term-limited legislative leaders are pushing road bills hard now.
They should. Michigan's roads are ranked 45th in the nation, according to data compiled by Business Leaders for Michigan, the state's top CEO roundtable. Spending-per-mile ranks 47th of 50 states; traffic has increased 11 percent over the past two decades, but capacity has expanded only 1 percent.
A comprehensive roads bill is "a must," said Douglas Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, whose member companies book $1 trillion in annual revenue and account for 25 percent of the state economy.
"This is something only government can do. It's no different from having a competitive business environment and tax environment. You have to get your people and products to market."
Now is the time to move. Gas prices continue to edge lower, lessening potential impact on voters' pocketbooks. Another harsh winter is likely to make next year's "pothole season" worse than this year's, if that's possible.
And the price of not moving will only move higher, as deferred maintenance piles on top of seasonal repairs, regularly-scheduled patches and the irony that the home of U.S. auto industry fields cheap, Third-World roads.
"What we're seeing in Macomb County and across the state is unacceptable," said Mark Hackel, Macomb county executive. "We have to come up with a funding solution. This has to be done as soon as possible."
How much will be done remains to be seen. Snyder proposes spending $1.4 billion annually over the next 10 years, an outlay he said would yield "fair to good roads, not great roads." Those cost more than current political will likely can produce.
The truth is that financing a program to repair and replace Michigan's roads and bridges is likely to require new tax revenue. How, exactly, will be hammered out by House and Senate leaders and committee members over the coming weeks.
It won't be free. State Rep. Kurt Heise raised a fair point Monday when he told Snyder and Kirk Steudle, director of the state Department of Transportation, that funding for roads would need to be funding for roads. Period.
The Plymouth Township Republican should press the point. Backing higher taxes for road and bridge repair is easier to defend if the taxes are earmarked for the purposes backed by business and a majority of voters.
Michigan has a road problem — and we all know it. Pretending it can all be fixed without impacting state spending or somehow raising taxes is unrealistic, the triumph of hope over common sense.
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.