Opinion: Go big or go home, Gov. Whitmer

Dennis Lennox

Instead of using her State of the State address to fire the opening round in this year’s election campaign, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should use the occasion to signal her willingness to reform all things infrastructure and transport.

There is no question that Michigan’s infrastructure needs more money, but the Republican-controlled Legislature should resist any and all temptations by the Democratic governor to increase revenue unless and until the way roads, highways, bridges, public works and other transport are funded and overseen is modernized.

It makes absolutely no sense to raise gas taxes at a time when an increasing number of automobiles are no longer powered by internal combustion engines. Drivers of electric-powered cars must pay their fair share.

And selling state bonds doesn't make sense either unless the governor addresses the states outdated way of allocating these funds.

Gov. Whitmer should link increased road funding to bold reform that includes replacing the multi-member state Transportation Commission with a single commissioner of transport and infrastructure, writes Lennox.

It's undeniable that a good number of roads and highways are relics of a bygone era. 

The Michigan of the third decade of the 21st century is not the Michigan of the postwar years, when the Wolverine State’s population was at its greatest and the might of the car-making industry required the construction of countless thoroughfares. Today’s taxpayers are burdened by these relics. 

Michigan has 83 counties, and its county lines have not been redrawn since the early 1890s. In those days, Michiganians traversed the state by horseback or train. Counties once served an important purpose by administering or performing duties of the state not easily done from the capital of Lansing. 

This would explain why counties are the backbone of road funding under the settlement in the so-called Act 51, which requires the state to distribute revenue in the Michigan Transportation Fund for roads and bridges. Of that money the state and counties equally receive 39% (by and through autonomous, elected or appointed, multi-member road commission boards). The remaining 22% is set aside for cities and villages.

Almost all counties consist of the aforesaid road commissions, elected drain commissioners for some but not all public works, and appointed public works boards for everything else. Then there are the 533 cities and villages, which control much of the infrastructure within the boundaries of their charter. Outside of some cities, most of these entities have bailiwicks that do not include other important aspects of transport.

The Byzantine structure of the state, counties and localities all having a role in infrastructure and transport has resulted in no real statewide plan.

Moreover, some communities have already raised additional revenue via property tax assessments on a millage basis, which further weakens Whitmer’s argument for a sweeping increase in revenue.

This is hardly a good way to oversee and fund infrastructure and transport.

Whitmer should go big by linking increased revenue to bold reform that includes replacing the multi-member state Transportation Commission with a single commissioner of transport and infrastructure.

The state’s new commissioner of transport and infrastructure should take over the duties and responsibilities of county road commissions, though the politically easier approach would involve consolidating county road commissions, drain commissioners and public works boards into a single agency overseen by an elected or appointed officeholder. At the same time, a governor’s commission should be tasked with reporting on the reorganization of counties to reflect the Michigan of 2020.

Anything short of a holistic approach to infrastructure and transport will fail to fix the damn roads.

Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant. He was an elected county drain commissioner.