Opinion

Michigan’s ‘damn roads’ remain political landmine for governor

Posted

It was almost four years ago when Garlin Gilchrist stood on a stage built up on downtown Lansing's bombed-out Seymour Avenue and Shiawassee Street intersection and accepted then-Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer's nod for lieutenant governor. 

The symbolism of using that particular spot for the announcement was obvious. The visuals were stunning. The Capitol, where Gilchrist would presumably serve as president of the Senate, stood boldly in the background for all of the TV cameras and still photographers to see. 

Juxtapose the view with the road. Shiawassee between Capitol Avenue and Pine Street is an uneven patchwork of potholes. It's jarring to travel over for motorists and bicyclists. I speak from personal experience. 

Whitmer didn't need to re-utter "Fix the Damn Roads," her 2018 campaign slogan. Everyone there knew what needed to be done. Gilchrist said it anyway. 

"We have so many infrastructure challenges that we need to fix, like these roads," said Gilchrist as his young daughter was seen playing in a pothole. 

Age hasn't done Shiawassee any favors. The street has gotten a little worse in 2019, 2020 and 2021. 

Finally, this week, crews mercifully began the prep work to repave that dreadful piece of road, the main conduit for firetrucks traveling from Station 1 to the Westside Neighborhood or any point west. 

It took four years since Gilchrist said the street should be fixed. I understand Shiawassee is a city street and it's a Lansing issue, but the state can earmark local road money. The point stands. Running a Michigan political campaign on our crummy roads is a short-term winner and a long-term hazard. It's one Whitmer has aggressively tried this year to address. 

The task in front of her was daunting. It's still daunting. A national transportation research report found 67% of Michigan's roads are in fair or poor condition. The remaining 33% were in good condition.  

The National Transportation Research Nonprofit report concluded that unless Michigan changes the way it funds its roads, the percentage of roads in fair and poor condition will go up. It's not a close call. 

If nothing changes, if we continue to have the status quo, roads will go bad faster than they can be repaired. The average Michigan household will pay $6,273 more in traffic crashes, traffic snarls, vehicle repairs and expensive, emergency road/bridge repairs, the report reads. 

Whitmer tried to push through a long-term funding fix in the form of a 45-cent a gallon gas tax, which was a political impossibility at $3 a gallon, let alone the current $5 a gallon. She's bonding for roads now, but that's paying for today's problems on a credit card. 

Nobody knows she has a problem more than the governor. Since February, she has appeared personally at no fewer than 30 press conference across the state at various locations heralding major road improvements. 

It's not sinking in. A May 11-17 poll of 600 people from EPIC-MRA found that 93% of voters have an unfavorable impression of Michigan's roads — 65% of voters said they're poor and 28% said they're fair. 

You can't get 93% of people to agree on whether a banana is yellow. That's an amazing number. 

Outside of bonding and pleading with legislators for more funding, there's not much she can do about it. The Legislature controls the purse strings. 

Whitmer had a chance to strike a compromise with the Legislature to raise the gas tax 15 cents back in 2019. She said, no. She wanted more. She ended up with nothing. Then COVID hit, changing everybody’s focus.  

Now it's 2022 and the top issue after inflation and economy is … roads, of course. 

Whitmer knows this. She said last week, "No one ever said that with decades of under investment we could fix (the roads) overnight or even in one term. That's not ever a promise I made." 

Republicans call it “moving the goalposts." She calls it doing the best with what she has.   

They can both agree the damn roads still present a political landmine. 

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

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