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Lansing — The GOP chairman of the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday asked officials of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration about other ideas to improve roadways after $3.5 billion in bonds were approved for state highways.

During a hearing on Whitmer's bonding plan, Rep. Jack O'Malley, R-Lake Ann, said it "does nothing for local roads."

"Is there a plan beyond bonding," O'Malley asked at one point.

In response, Michigan Department of Transportation Director Paul Ajegba said  Republicans and Democrats still "need to come to the table" and discuss new revenue — that is, taxes — for infrastructure improvements.

But Ajegba added, "I don’t think there’s anything else on the table at this moment.”

The exchange highlighted a 90-minute meeting of the House Transportation Committee, where Whitmer officials defended the new bonding plan and former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican who's now president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, criticized it.

Whitmer, a Democrat who campaigned on the slogan "fix the damn roads," released the plan on Wednesday during her State of the State address. Under it, the state will sell up to $3.5 billion in bonds over the next four years, taking on debt to create an influx of money to reconstruct portions of state highways. The state will pay back the debt over the next 25 years.

Ajegba said state officials strategically picked the projects so the new roadways would outlast the debt payments on the bonds.

As Republicans admitted Tuesday, there's little they can do to block the sale of the bonds. However, the administrative power only allows the governor to fix state highways with the created dollars. That leaves local roadways out in the cold. 

State trunklines — the type of roadways that will benefit from the bond dollars —  comprise 8% of Michigan’s road network, according to the County Road Association of Michigan.

“I am sure the folks in southeast Michigan, and I have relatives that live there, will be happy when the interstates are fixed,” O'Malley said after Tuesday's meeting. "But to get home, they’ve got to exit. And then they’re going to be on those local roads."

The Michigan Department of Transportation has pointed out that state trunklines carry 53% of total traffic and 73% of commercial traffic.

"Maintaining those corridors is vital to the movement of commerce," said Jeff Cranson, the department's spokesman.

Calley's presentation focused on the Small Business Association's concerns about taking on debt that will require state resources to pay off for years to come. But Calley also highlighted the local road issue.

The two-term lieutenant governor who served with Gov. Rick Snyder said Whitmer's plan wouldn't result in a "political benefit" because "over 90% of the roads, including the ones in the worst condition" wouldn't be included in the program.

"So I think a lot of people are going to ask the question, ‘I heard that there was this solution out there. I heard that something was getting done and yet I don’t see it happening?'" Calley said.

But Democrats and members of Whitmer's administration have argued that Republicans continue to criticize Whtimer's ideas without advancing their own proposals to create large-scale fixes for the state's crumbling infrastructure.

In 2019, Whitmer proposed increasing the the state's 26.3-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 45 cents or more than 170%. Republicans and some Democrats opposed the idea.

During the State of the State address, Whitmer called her bonding proposal "Plan B" and something that could get started "right away" without having to get the Legislature's approval.

Rep. Tim Sneller, D-Burton, asked Calley what his association is doing to advocate for more revenue for roads.

Calley said the association would potentially support a range of ideas, including a gas tax increase, toll roads and "anything that is structurally and fiscally sound."

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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