Road work ahead: Snyder OKs $175M for roads

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan will pump an extra $175 million into crumbling roads and transportation projects this year under a supplemental spending bill signed Tuesday by Gov. Rick Snyder in the midst of a massive pothole season.

The funding should reach local road agencies in time for summer construction work, but experts say it will not fully reverse projected long-term declines in road quality across the state.

Governor Rick Snyder talks with the media and guests before signing the FY18 Supplemental Funding Bill in the Governor's ceremonial office in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 20, 2018.

“It will slow the deterioration,” Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said after a new conference at the state Capitol, where Snyder signed the spending plan surrounded by orange barrels and “road work ahead” signs.

“This is going to help,” Steudle said. “In the long term, it’s still going to drop off, but this is going to push that off a bit.”

Snyder initially proposed the funding bump for 2019, but lawmakers accelerated the plan after a public outcry about a widespread expansion of potholes fueled by a tumultuous freeze-thaw cycle that ravaged pavement across the state.

The Republican governor, who has long advocated for additional infrastructure funding and signed a 2015 law that raised gas taxes and registration fees, acknowledged “it takes time” to see improvements but urged officials to remain committed to continuing investments.

“You can’t go anywhere in Michigan without people wanting to talk about roads, and there’s a good reason,” Snyder said in a signing ceremony at the Michigan Capitol, where he was surrounded by orange barrels and “road work ahead” signs.

“We need to improve them. We got in a big hole, literally, in terms of a big pothole over the last 20 years.”

The mid-year spending plan will send an extra $38.2 million to cities and villages, $68.4 million to county road commissions and $68.4 million to the state. It builds on the 2015 road funding law, which will begin to phase in additional general fund dollars next year.

The local dollars would be distributed among all 83 Michigan counties and 533 cities and villages based on an existing formula that considers population, pavement miles and other factors.

After signing the bill, Snyder turns to shake hands with Sen Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Among the state’s largest cities, Detroit would receive an extra $5.8 million this year under the bill. Grand Rapids would receive $1.47 million, Warren $924,337 and Sterling Heights $810,884. Oakland County would get an additional $7 million, Wayne County $6.48 million and Macomb $4.48 million.

“It’s nothing, but we’ll take it,” said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who had written lawmakers describing a much larger need. The county on Monday announced the results of an engineering study showing that it needs to replace 803 miles of roads and 44 bridges.

Macomb needs “well over a billion” dollars to fix its roads and bridges, “not just fill potholes,” Hackel said, suggesting the $4.48 million in new money the county will get “doesn’t even come close” to solving the problem.

“This is an unbelievable situation the state has put us in for decades,” he said. “Unfortunately, this Legislature owns the problem. To say $175 million and celebrate that as a fix is disingenuous. ... It gives an impression they’re solving the problem, but in reality, it’s not even close. It’s almost embarrassing.”

The supplemental spending bill includes $1 million for Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation into Michigan State University’s handling of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal. Another $2.4 million in general fund dollars would go to the state police for response efforts to recent flooding and for equipping more officers with Narcan nasal spray for use in opioid overdose cases.

The state transportation department is authorized to use up to $15 million of its new funding for new next-generation connected vehicle projects, hydrogen fueling stations and ride-sharing pilot projects for seniors and residents with disabilities.

Snyder said state spending on roads is up more than $1 billion since 2011, but “one of the big challenges we’ve faced is we’ve actually had our federal partners go backwards on us.”

The overall Michigan transportation budget will reach about $4.5 billion in 2018, up from $3.6 billion in 2011, according to the governor. Snyder said he would support an increase in the federal gas tax -- something most members of Congress have opposed -- and noted some communities have asked voters to implement local fees or assessments to boost investments.

“We all need to be part of the solution, not one single party,” the governor said.

In February, President Donald Trump told congressional lawmakers he supported a 25-cent increase in the 18.4-cent federal gas tax as a way to finance his infrastructure plan.

Denise Donahue, executive director of the County Roads Association of Michigan, thanked the governor and lawmakers for “this shot in the arm” but said it is important to set realistic expectations on how far the new funding will go.

“We didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to get out of this situation overnight,” she said, echoing comments by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

While general fund allocations from the 2015 road funding law are still being phased in, Donahue said it is time to start talking about “phase two” for “getting our roads back to a shape we’re proud of.”

Lawmakers unanimously approved the $178.4 million supplemental spending bill on March 1 after Senate Republicans rejected a Democratic proposal to fund additional repairs through a $275 million withdrawal from the state’s nearly $1 billion “rainy day” savings account.

Hackel and Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller had written lawmakers to tell them the funding would be “woefully inadequate” to address local needs. They urged lawmakers to tap into state savings, borrow from reserves or take other “creative actions” to boost spending.

“The current conditions on our local, county and state roads have far surpassed the level of inconvenience and are now at crisis levels,” Hackel and Miller said in their Feb. 27 letter.

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, said he first proposed accelerating the extra road funding dollars after Steudle assured him crews would be ready to put the money to use this summer.

“When you look at this winter, it’s been pretty mild and good for all of us as humans,” Leonard said, “but when you look at the way it’s treated the roads, it’s probably been one of the worst winters we’ve had in some time.”