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Math on selling assets to fix roads doesn’t add up, says Brixie

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The short answer is: It depends on how much you sell it for, but likely around 4  

The long answer of how many state-owned highway bridges could be repaired from a Blue Water Bridge sale is a little more involved. But before we get to that, let’s talk about why the question is even being brought up.

The Michigan House Republicans pushed through a budget in June that explores the sale of the state’s share of the bridge that links Port Huron with Sarnia, Canada, among other state-owned assets — four airports and an old rail line Up North.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is proposing a 45-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike to “fix the damn roads.” House Republicans are rummaging under the sofa cushions for spare change. Selling infrastructure is in one of the sofas.

Like other Democrats, Rep. Julie Brixie of Meridian Township wasn’t excited about the idea of, essentially, selling off furniture to pay the mortgage. But instead of writing off the ideas as one-time gimmicks, Brixie asked the Michigan Department of Transportation this summer on the logistics of making these sales.

Here’s what she found:

— House Republicans’ ballpark sticker price for the Blue Water Bridge was $500 million. MDOT says it would take a private vendor 62 years to get a return on investment — and that’s if two major projects currently on the drawing board are shelved.

— The most realistic price MDOT could get on its half of the bridge is $155.9 million. If the state got that price, $90 million would be needed to pay off existing debt and $45 million to repay the federal government for what it put into the project. That would leave $21 million leftover. The average cost to build a highway bridge is $6.4 million; that’s four-and-a-half bridge repairs. MDOT’s goal is to replace 115 bridges a year and do routine maintenance on another 85.

— House Republicans asked MDOT to look into selling the four small airports the state owns. The rest of the roughly 225 airports are owned by local public authorities or local government.

However, Michigan would need to pay the federal government $10 million if it sold the airports in Romeo and Plymouth to a private vendor if the property isn’t used for an airport.

Also, whatever the state makes on the airport sales would need to go into fixing other airports, not fixing the roads.

— The other proposed sale is an old rail line between Grayling and Gaylord that the state only owns because the private sector found it financial unviable. Even if someone bought it, any money would need to go into public transit.

Nothing could go into fixing the damn roads.

Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, led the effort to put these ideas on the table because he said the state shouldn’t be owning assets that can be handled by the sector. Also, if there’s a way to raise money that doesn’t include asking taxpayers to dig deeper into their pockets, it should be explored.

When told how many bridges a Blue Water Bridge sale could fund, Maddock responded, “What’s wrong with that? We have bridges in poor condition and we could use the money.”
But none of these ideas were publicly vetted. That’s why Brixie’s summer-long correspondence with MDOT was useful. What could the state get from the sales of these assets?

“It doesn’t scratch the surface,” Brixie said. “It doesn’t change a thing either way.”

Selling a major state asset to address a fraction of one year of annual bridge maintenance isn’t a sustainable strategy. The state needs new revenue, she said.

Brixie noted state spending is $11 billion below the Headlee Amendment cap. General Fund spending has stayed stagnant at $10 billion for years. The time has come to raise revenue at a level where regular road and bridge maintenance can be maintained, she said.

“You can debate a lot of things, but math is not one of them,” she said.

Maddock said he appreciates Brixie doing her due diligence on the budget, but she’s taking “the easy way out” in making the case for higher taxes.

“I’m doing my due diligence to lower taxes and to identify the waste we all know exists in government to avoid taxing us all again,” Maddock said. “I’m never going to stop fighting to reduce the tax burden on Michiganders.”

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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