Report: Mich. needs $4B more yearly for infrastructure

Christine Ferretti, and Jonathan Oosting

Dearborn — Michigan needs roughly $4 billion a year in additional funding to create a 21st century transportation, water and communications infrastructure system, according to a commission formed by Gov. Rick Snyder that is calling on policymakers to help “close the investment gap.”

The 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, inspired by Flint’s contaminated water crisis, was created by Snyder under an executive order in March, and in a newly released report, has pegged the state’s 20-year investment gap at $59.6 billion.

The 27-member body, comprised of state and independent industry experts, was tasked with assessing and prioritizing infrastructure needs across the state, including underground water and sewerage systems, transportation, energy and communications networks.

Michigan is the first state in the nation to call for a commission to study infrastructure challenges against all sectors and put a price tag on what it’ll cost to implement changes. But specifics on how the massive needs will be funded remain unclear.

“We did not shy away from the things people of Michigan need,” said commission chairman S. Evan Weiner, chief operating officer of Edw. C. Levy Co., during a Monday news conference at the Henry Ford Museum. “Here’s what we can say for certain: We need to act with urgency in order to quickly improve quality of service, and we need to keep long-term costs low while ensuring a high quality of life for every Michigander.”

Snyder first proposed the commission in his January State of the State address, saying Flint’s drinking water crisis highlighted the need for a longterm plan to address aging infrastructure throughout the state.

On Monday, he noted the effort will “require significant investment.” The report lists a 50-year vision with a variety of funding options including federal, state or local dollars, user fees or private investment to close the infrastructure funding gaps.

“There isn’t one answer to all of this,” Snyder said. “That’s one of the things I think is a positive.”

In its 188-page report, the commission notes Michigan has an $800 million annual investment gap in water and sewer infrastructure funding as a result of “decades of deferred maintenance and a lack of knowledge on the condition of our water-related asset.

“The Flint water crisis has placed a national spotlight on the impacts of deteriorating infrastructure, declining population and system usage, fragmented decision making, and severe underinvestment in critical water infrastructure,” the report says. “Flint is not alone.”

The report highlights growing water contamination concerns in Oscoda Township and Ann Arbor linked to chemicals used at a former air force base and medical filters facility, respectively.

“These two communities face the complex problem of chemicals that contaminate local groundwater supplies, causing hundreds of homeowners to abandon their wells and seek alternative drinking water sources,” the commission said. “Michigan’s municipal systems need to be evaluated for defective and inadequate infrastructure to ensure long-term safety and public health.”

Michigan road funding is set to increase in coming years as a 2015 law that will raise fuel taxes and registration fees, beginning in 2017. But “even with these investments,” the state should be spending an additional $2.2 billion a year if it hopes to keep a majority of its roads and bridges in good shape, according to the report.

The commission also is recommending $70 million a year in annual communication infrastructure spending, primarily to improve broadband access to parts of the state that are still not connected to high-speed internet.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican from Harrison Township who was elected in November to serve as the next Macomb County public works commissioner, said the report comes at the right time.

Infrastructure investment, she said, is a marquee issue of President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration and the commission’s work puts Michigan “ahead of the curve.”

“There has not been a coordinated effort in this state on infrastructure investment. And yet, it’s an obvious need. Having this committee recommendation fills that void and positions our state beautifully in a national footprint,” she said. “If you can think of any silver lining from Flint — and it’s difficult to find one — it is that people generally across our great state are much more cognizant of the fact that we do have to have infrastructure investment.”

The commission, through its report, calls on Snyder to establish a regional infrastructure pilot in early 2017 to begin working on a statewide asset management database.

By 2018, the state Legislature should establish the Michigan Infrastructure Council, an entity that can leverage lessons learned in the regional pilot and help unify infrastructure efforts across the state in future decades.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown said he’s taken an initial look at the recommendations. What’s needed from here, he said, are details on where the money could come from or how it could be generated.

“The devil is in the details,” he said. “The report gets everybody excited and talking about it and working towards it, but at some point you’ve got to find the dollars to make it a reality.”

In Detroit at least, he said, dollars won’t be coming from the city’s rate payers.

“Right now, this should not be put on the backs of residents with such a high poverty rate,” he said.