Editorial: On roads, Whitmer made the promise, she owns the failure

The Detroit News

The thing about campaign promises is that, even in this cynical age, voters expect them to be kept. Gretchen Whitmer won the governor's office four years ago on the strength of a pledge that captivated Michigan's jarred and jaded motorists:

"Fix the damn roads."

It was a brilliant slogan in that it captured the frustration of motorists weary of decades of driving on some of the worst roads in America.

Voters were fed up with highways marred by crater-sized potholes, and done with fat bills for repairing damaged front ends and busted tires.

And mostly, they'd had enough with politicians who said smoothing roads was a top priority, but never actually doing much about it. 

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised she'd be the one who finally brought Michigan's roads into drivable condition. She hasn't done it.

Whitmer promised she'd be the one who finally brought Michigan's roads into drivable condition. She hasn't done it.

The percentage of state roads rated in poor shape today is 40%, according to estimates from the Michigan Department of Transportation. 

That's roughly the same percentage as when Whitmer took office in 2019. There has been a slight improvement — 4% — in roads rated in good condition. That falls well short of what Michigan voters expected from Whitmer's promise.

Republicans are hammering the governor, who is up for reelection this fall, for the failure to fix the roads. A new 60-second digital ad asks the question, "Are your roads better than they were four years ago?" It features rattled vehicle owners answering definitely not.

The governor's office is pushing back against the attack, saying Whitmer's efforts to raise billions for road and bridge repairs were thwarted by a Republican-controlled Legislature.

In her first year in office, Whitmer proposed a 45-cent hike in Michigan's fuel tax, which would have raised more than $2 billion annually in additional transportation funding.

The governor's defenders are correct in noting GOP lawmakers killed that proposal.

But they, too, had made campaign promises to their constituents, including a vow not to raise taxes.

And Whitmer didn't say she'd "fix the damn roads if Republicans let me." There was no such caveat to her promise.

Part of the expectation of a governor is to find ways to build consensus with lawmakers of both parties to move the state ahead.

Beyond higher taxes, Whitmer offered little in the way of innovative ideas for adopting better road-building tactics to make sure that once a highway is fixed, it stays fixed. Instead, road crews this spring are doing what they've always done — shoveling tar into potholes and moving on.

When she asked for the 45-cent tax hike, which we supported at the time, gasoline prices were in the $2.50-a-gallon range.

With per-gallon prices now hovering around $4, the burden of that levy would have Michigan motorists paying California-style gasoline prices.

Michigan is now awash in federal dollars, and Whitmer has offered a $4.7 billion plan for infrastructure, but only $380 million is slated for roads and bridges.

The reality that Whitmer made a big, bold pledge to voters four years ago, and didn't deliver.