Michigan Senate approves $1.6B in relief funds for bridges, rail crossings

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate approved a spending bill Thursday that would use $1.6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money to improve bridges and rail crossings in the state.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted 23-12 in favor of the proposal with some Democrats voicing concerns the expenditure might not be an appropriate use of the stimulus funds. State lawmakers continue to consider how to allocate billions of dollars in federal relief and state surplus dollars.

Under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden in March, the funds can support government services to the extent that the state has experienced a revenue loss because of the COVID-19 public health emergency, according to the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency.

Deteriorating conditions on a bridge at Miller and Rotunda in Dearborn, Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Of the $1.6 billion, $1.3 billion would go to a statewide program for the rehabilitation or replacement of bridges owned by local road agencies and $195 million would go to county road commissions, cities and villages for revenue lost due the pandemic. The other $126 million would be focused on separating vehicle traffic from railroad traffic at rail crossings.

"This is about taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real and profound change in Macomb and our entire state that will benefit Michigan families for decades," Sen. Michael MacDonald, R-Macomb Township, said in a statement.

Improving Michigan's crumbling infrastructure has been a focus of lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for years. Whitmer ran for governor in 2018 with a slogan of "fix the damn roads." In January 2020, the governor announced a plan to borrow up to $3.5 billion over the next four years to inject money into the state's road system.

Republican lawmakers see the surge of COVID-19 relief funds as an opportunity to improve the state's infrastructure as well. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in April, his priorities for the federal money included roads, bridges, water systems, sewer systems, education, access to broadband and business recovery.

All of the Senate's 20 Republicans supported the spending bill Thursday. Three of the 15 Democrats who were present voted in favor of the legislation: Sens. Mallory McMorrow of Royal Oak, Dayna Polehanki of Livonia and Paul Wojno of Warren.

Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, said all lawmakers support funding bridges and rail separations but she voiced concerns about whether the proposal was a legal use of the COVID-19 money

“It’s vitally important that we follow the federal law, making sure that we are not illegally using any of the funds," Chang said.

Shirkey's spokeswoman Abby Walls said other states are allocating the money in similar ways. Plus, Walls said, the state can demonstrate lost revenue as a result of the pandemic that would have gone to road maintenance and repair.

Dan Gilmartin, CEO and executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, touted the proposal. He said Thursday his organization, which represents cities, estimates the money is enough to "address all our local bridges in critical condition."

"The scale of resources needed to repair and replace Michigan’s bridges far exceeds the financial ability of Michigan’s local road agencies," Gilmartin said. "That is why the League applauds the Senate’s recognition of this need and their willingness to take action to invest $1.3 billion in local bridges and $200 million for local road agencies to offset transportation revenue lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic."

The bill now goes to the Michigan House for consideration.