House puts $175M for roads on fast track
Lansing – Michigan legislators are getting a jumpstart on Gov. Rick Snyder’s call for $175 million in additional road and transportation funding, advancing a mid-year spending bill rather than waiting for next year’s budget.
The Michigan House on Wednesday unanimously approved a fast-tracked plan that would devote an extra $38.2 million to cities and villages, $68.4 million to county road commissions and $68.4 million to the state. The Senate could vote on the plan as soon as next week.
The development comes as Metro Detroit road commissions and others statewide are noting that potholes have developed earlier this winter and are more severe than in past years. “I don’t have words for how many potholes and how the roads are crumbling,” Michigan Department of Transportation spokeswoman Diane Cross told The Detroit News on Tuesday.
Snyder initially proposed pumping extra one-time surplus funding into roads next year. But with a cold Michigan winter giving way to a rainy thaw, “the roads are just kind of crazy,” said Rep. Laura Cox, R-Livonia, who chairs the Appropriations Committee.
“Taking action now will give our local communities time to prepare for the upcoming construction season,” she said.
Democrats voted for the plan but called it an election-year Band-Aid that will not reverse state projections of future declines in road conditions.
“Are we going to say no to some extra money for roads? Of course not,” House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, told Republicans. “But we’re going to remind you that you have continued to fail to live up to the obligation for our roads and to our bridges.”
The extra road repair and maintenance dollars would be distributed among all 83 Michigan counties and 533 cities and villages based on an existing funding formula that considers population, pavement miles and other factors.
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.
While most of the committee-approved funding would be devoted to road and bridge maintenance, the state Transportation Department would be authorized to spend up to $15 million on next-generation connected vehicle projects, hydrogen fueling stations and ride-sharing pilot projects for seniors and residents with disabilities.
The $175 million in general fund money would build on a $4.3 billion transportation budget that includes mostly federal and restricted state funding. Earlier Wednesday in an appropriations committee hearing, transportation officials and industry experts said construction crews could handle the additional workload, minimizing the possibility that prices could rise due to higher demand.
Construction companies have “already begun to ramp up” as the state continues to phase in a $1.2 billion road funding law signed by Snyder in 2015, said Lance Binoniemi of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association. The state increased gas taxes and registration fees in 2017 and will begin redirecting general fund money to roads beginning next fiscal year.
“We’re enduring one of the worst pothole seasons we’ve seen in recent memory,” Binoniemi said. “We’ve seen study and study that shows we need more money in our roads and bridges just to bring them up to par with where they were 30 years ago.”
Democrats proposed failed amendments to that would have added another $70 million to $75 million to the road funding plan by bonding for capital improvement projects or taking money from the state’s rainy day fund.
The $175 million “is good but not sufficient,” said Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids. “This is an ongoing concern. The roads get worse every year. Winter happens every year.”
The mid-year spending plan would allow the Department of Transportation to move forward with advanced technology pilot projects it has been considering for several years, including a “demonstration project” to test the viability of partnering with ride-sharing companies like Uber or Lyft to supplement transportation options for elderly or disabled residents.
Those residents are less likely to own or operate vehicles, said Sharon Edgar, an administrator with MDOT’s Office of Passenger Transportation. The two-to-three-year project would test public private partnerships with ride-sharing companies, primarily in urban areas where the service already exists.
Some funding would also help MDOT test connected and automated vehicle communication technology in specific corridors across the state chosen because of their proximity to developers.
“A majority of the research and development associated with connected and automated technologies are happening within Michigan, so we have to remain a leader in deployment of technologies that allows these vehicles to be developed, tested and operated effectively,” said Collin Castle, a connective vehicle specialist at MDOT.
The state would essentially build infrastructure elements that could communicate with autonomous vehicles, sharing information about intersections, inclement weather, congestion and other road conditions.
The state Department of Transportation is looking to implement connected vehicle technologies on Woodward Avenue from Detroit to Interstate 696, “which really connects the city of Detroit with a lot of the OEM supplier communities,” said Castle, referring to the automakers’ suppliers.
Other likely sites include US-12 near the new American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, US-23 near Ann Arbor where the state has already implemented new “flex route” technologies and in the Upper Peninsula around Houghton to support research efforts at Michigan Technological University.
“We’re talking about the ability for our infrastructure to share valuable data with the vehicle,” Castle told The News. “We could then use the same data these vehicles are generating to allow us to make more informed decisions from an infrastructure perspective.”
While lawmakers ultimately approved the funding plan, several questioned whether the state was working to test similar technologies that could benefit residents in more rural parts of the state.
“I’m tired of everything being in Southeast Michigan,” said Rep. Kim LaSata, a Republican from Bainbridge Township in southwest Michigan. “Houghton in the U.P. is great, but we have definite needs elsewhere.”
The road spending plan would drain most of the remaining $200 million state budget surplus expected at the end of the current fiscal year, House Fiscal Agency Director Mary Ann Cleary told lawmakers.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said the upper chamber could vote on the road funding bill next week. But Senate Republicans have not yet discussed the specific proposal, Amber McCann told reporters.
“There’s still some details being discussed, but the general premise, yes, the majority leader is in agreement that it would be good to put some more money into roads,” she said.