Whitmer asks senators for 'significant investment' in infrastructure

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News
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Washington — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who was elected on a campaign of "fixing the damn roads," urged a Senate panel Wednesday to increase federal spending on the nation's transportation infrastructure, arguing that economic growth and environmental sustainability can both be served by improvements to roads and bridges.

“Without significant investments in infrastructure, my state and our nation will struggle to remain competitive," Whitmer told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in her opening statement. "The pandemic has had a devastating impact on our transportation revenues and we desperately need federal assistance."

She touted Michigan's history as the birthplace of the American auto industry and said the state and its business leaders are prioritizing investments in electric and autonomous vehicles. 

"We also need a plan that goes beyond just roads. We need a national vision when it comes to transportation, much like the interstate highway system offered 65 years ago," she said. "For too long, there's been a misconception that preparing for the future comes at the expense of economic growth and good-paying jobs today. But it's not a binary choice."

However, she stopped short of offering a solution on how that investment should be funded. "I know it's a long-debated question," she said. "I'm not here to answer the question on the federal gas tax."

The committee also heard from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who spearheaded an initiative to fix the nation's infrastructure as chair of the National Governors Association; Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, and Victoria Sheehan, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. 

Addressing longstanding underinvestment in U.S. infrastructure is expected to be President Joe Biden's next priority after lawmakers act on the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that is being debated in Congress. 

Biden has promised to make a "historic investment" of around $2 trillion in the nation's infrastructure and prioritize transportation policies that combat climate change, including building half a million electric vehicle charging stations and funding EV research and development. 

Both Republican and Democratic members of the Senate panel expressed commitment to a spending package. They cited a package passed by the committee in 2019 that will likely be the starting point for new infrastructure discussions, which would have invested $287 billion in highways and dedicated around $10 billion to climate change initiatives.

Senators of both parties also stressed the importance of looking for sustainable funding solutions that would reflect the transition to electric vehicles, nodding at a potential turn away from gas taxes as the main source of revenue for infrastructure funding. 

But Sen. Shelley Capito, R-West Virginia, cautioned against creating a transportation funding bill that becomes a multi-trillion dollar package "packed with ideologically-driven, one-size-fits-all policies."

Whitmer told the committee that 43% of Michigan's major roads are in poor or middling condition and that driving the state's roadways costs Michigan drivers $4.67 billion every year — around $659 per motorist. 

A report compiled under former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder indicated the state would need billions more every year to bring the state's infrastructure into good condition. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

But fixing Michigan's roads hasn't gone as planned for Whitmer. The gas tax hike she proposed in 2019 was roundly rejected by the Republican-led state Legislature. In early 2020, she began a $3.5 billion bond program to fund road and bridge repairs, though the funding couldn't go toward local roads.

Since then, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic has dominated state political negotiations as policymakers dealt with a public health crisis that has killed nearly 15,400 people in Michigan to date. 

Electrification in mind

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, chair of the committee, noted the push from the private sector, including companies such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., to pivot to more electric vehicles. Ford has pledged to make its passenger vehicle fleet in Europe all-electric by 2030 and GM has said it aims to end tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035. "That was a wake-up call, wasn't it," he joked. 

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, said the Chinese government has invested billions in encouraging EV development and deployment in the country, and the U.S. should help spur domestic-based supply chains such as battery cell plants. 

“Our companies are investing tens of millions of dollars in the future right now. They cannot get there without us," she said. China remains a fierce competitor to the U.S. auto industry, but "we can win. Right now, the majority of the expertise and technology is in America. But it won’t be unless we are partnering with them to get there."

Senators agreed that building out charging infrastructure is crucial to aiding in that transition, and Whitmer suggested they review potential tax incentives for companies hoping to transition their fleets. 

"Fleets represent the greatest near-term commercial opportunity for large-scale deployment of electric vehicles," she said, adding that charging stations that can serve medium and heavy-duty vehicles are necessary. 

Where the funding will come from for Biden's big infrastructure push remains to be seen. He promised not to raise taxes on those earning under $400,000, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has indicated a gas tax hike is unlikely.

Other options include financing the improvements with borrowing or other tax increases, likely on corporations or high earners, as Biden promised during his campaign. 

Biden has argued that his infrastructure plan and climate goals will create jobs in clean energy and other related sectors, though the initiatives are likely to hurt jobs in traditional energy industries such as oil, gas and coal — something that's been a source of contention between the administration and leading lawmakers from oil- and gas-rich regions. 

The administration has begun meeting with key senators, including Carper, as well as labor leaders in the building trades to discuss infrastructure plans. 

While there's bipartisan support in Congress for infrastructure improvements, divisions over spending priorities such as public transit and environmental goals have prevented significant funding from passing in recent Congresses. 

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @rbeggin

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