Opinion: Pass mining legislation to rebuild Michigan's infrastructure

Mark Johnston

As Michigan works to rebuild its economy following the crushing blow dealt by COVID-19, one thing that would help create jobs, improve our environment and boost our state’s attractiveness for investment is rebuilding our roads, sewers and other infrastructure.

Legislation to help us get that done is currently pending before the Legislature and it could not come at a better time.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the legislature are working to find solutions to infrastructure funding problems, but rebuilding the huge number of bad roads, crumbing bridges and aging water and sewer systems will be costly. Fortunately, Whitmer’s road bonding program is getting under way and we will start to see some results.

Rebuilding our roads to improve our economy will require a whole lot of concrete and asphalt, Johnston writes.

But, there is so much more to do.

Updating sewer systems to protect our drinking water and rebuilding our roads to improve our economy will require a whole lot of concrete and asphalt. And to produce those products here in Michigan, we must pull raw ingredients, known as aggregates, from the ground. Those include sand, gravel and limestone.

Michigan has the aggregates we need but it’s getting very difficult to obtain permission to access these materials. First, while you might think rocks are everywhere, the high-quality aggregates required for durable, lasting infrastructure materials are found in limited places. We can only mine for them where mother nature deposited them.  

Because of that knowledge, our industry enjoys productive relationships with forward-thinking local governments which understand aggregate mining cannot simply be directed through the zoning process like a corner drug store or new industrial park. Nonetheless, once an effort to mine aggregates becomes the target of political pressure and protesting, some government officials change course and stop new aggregate mining.

This often means that aggregate mining permitting process drags on for years and ends up in the courts, despite industry efforts to carefully work with zoning boards, planning commissions and neighbors beforehand.

Opposition efforts are usually short-sighted, at best. First, the streets, driveways and basements in areas rejecting aggregate mining would be impossible to build without access to sand and gravel. Next, new demand for construction-grade sand and gravel remains strong and growing in the effort to rebuild our infrastructure, but without new mining approvals, tighter supplies lead to higher prices for families who foot the bill on public and private projects. Finally, as aggregate mining is pushed further away from populated areas due to these denials, increased costs incurred from trucking and shipping materials from distant places means fewer miles of road can be rebuilt for each dollar in taxes families pay.

America’s focus has been on stopping COVID-19, and thankfully so. Now the Legislature is looking at reforms to help get Michigan’s economy moving again. The legislative reforms under consideration in Senate Bill 431 would ensure that more aggregate mining can occur, closer to the areas where the work is being done, which would save taxpayers money and allow more infrastructure to be rebuilt.

And, it would do so with built-in protections for our environment and neighbors. This would help fix more roads and sewers instead of wasting money on higher construction and material transportation costs.

Don’t just take my word for it, either. An unprecedented coalition of major union and business groups known as Build It Michigan Strong supports these reforms because they will create more jobs, fix more infrastructure and help save money in the process.

We all want to see Michigan improve its roads, boost our economy and keep our drinking water clean. This bill would help us do that.

Mark Johnston is president of Troy-based Ajax Paving Industries.