Director: New road funding formula, $1.5B more needed to fix just state trunklines

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Paul Ajegba

Lansing — Michigan's new transportation director advocated for changing how state and local road aid is distributed and an additional $1.5 billion in funding for just state trunklines as he addressed state senators Tuesday.

The state is still calculating how much it needs to repair Michigan’s state, county and city roads and make good on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign promise to “fix the damn roads.” But Director Paul Ajegba told senators the figure likely hovers around $1.5 billion without taking into account the expected additional cost for city and county roads.

“The resources we have right now are not meeting our needs,” he said, noting that the state has a real need to “grow the pie.”

A 29-year veteran of the department, Ajegba answered questions from lawmakers for an hour and a half. He is the first of several Whitmer department appointees who are expected to address Senate advice and consent meetings.

The committee likely will meet with each of the main department directors over the coming weeks, said Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, chairman for the advice and consent committee. The panel has 60 days to confirm or oppose an appointment; otherwise, the appointment is confirmed by default.

Ajegba emphasized he wants to push innovations, efficiencies and transparency in state spending. The 57-year-old Ann Arbor resident is a civil engineer who helped lead major projects at the department, including the state’s first “flex route” on U.S. 23.

Senators questioned the department’s work on road project warranties, speed limit changes, restrictions on oversized loads, the future of autonomous vehicles and outsourcing of work within the department. But the overriding concern among senators was the state’s funding quandary and Ajegba’s plans to meet the revenue shortfall.

The state is phasing in more money for road and bridge repairs, but the extra amount won't reach $1.2 billion a year until 2021. 

Legislators were led to believe in 2015 that MDOT only needed $1.2 billion, said Sen. Tom Barrett, chairman for the transportation and infrastructure committee. When the department asks for more before the spending plan even reaches its 2021 implementation, “it wears away that trust” with lawmakers, the Potterville Republican said.

Ajegba challenged that characterization, noting that MDOT needed $1.2 billion at the time for state trunk lines alone. But when the $1.2 billion allocation began to be shared with communities through Public Act 51, more than 60 percent of the funding was siphoned off for county and city roads.

Democratic Sen. Curtis Hertel of East Lansing agreed with Ajegba and noted that the cost of road repairs increases each year, so the funding need would also increase.

“If we’re looking at who is not solving the problem, as legislators, we should probably look in the mirror,” Hertel said.

Ajegba cautioned against bonding to meet the funding gap “without a way to finance the bond.” But he said other questions about the current road funding model were best left to the legislative process.

“My advice is that if we are able to increase our funding, once we get to whatever the goal is, we find a mechanism to make sure it stays there,” he said.

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