Analysis: Infrastructure upgrades unlikely to be speedy

Posted at 4:59 PM, Jan 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-21 16:59:38-05

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Flint’s man-made water crisis and a football field-sized sinkhole in suburban Detroit have exposed flaws in aging underground pipes that mostly are out of sight, out of mind for a public that is more attuned to the sorry state of Michigan’s roads.

But a major influx of money for infrastructure upgrades is unlikely to be approved anytime soon, despite Republican Gov. Rick Snyder warning lawmakers and a statewide audience in his recent State of the State speech that “every corner” of Michigan is at risk.

He said all public and private revenue sources should be considered — including fees, taxes, grants and bonds — but he did not outline a funding proposal. He knows the difficulty in asking the GOP-led Legislature to raise taxes or fees, especially more than a year after it increased fuel and vehicle registration taxes in a bid to keep roads and bridges from deteriorating further.

For now, Snyder is focused on what experts say is a key recommendation from his 21st Century Infrastructure Commission. It is a process called asset management, by which infrastructure is continually inventoried and assessed so decisions are made on which maintenance projects to prioritize.

The data collection is commonplace in the road industry, but less so for water, sewer and storm water systems.

“We need to understand what we have first, and then we can address the problems,” said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president and secretary of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, a construction trade group.

Like with roads, people should know if their water and sewer systems are rated as good, fair or poor, he said. The problem is it is expensive and time-consuming to inspect underground lines.

The commission recommended in December that the state spend $750 million over five years solely to help communities assess their drinking water and sewer assets. It is a portion of what the commission projected is a staggering $4 billion annual shortfall in spending on transportation, water and communications infrastructure over the next 20 years.

The panel, which was formed in the wake of the lead contamination of Flint’s water supply, reported that state and local capital spending in Michigan averaged 6.4 percent of total expenditures from 2010 to 2014. The U.S. average was 10.2 percent. Michigan was behind adjacent states including Indiana (9.9 percent), Ohio (9.2 percent) and Wisconsin (8.5 percent).

If additional infrastructure spending is approved, it likely will not come from just one source. Infrastructure legislation is one of President Donald Trump’s top priorities at the federal level. While Republican legislators oppose new taxes, they might try to shift money from other parts of the budget toward infrastructure.

Snyder could again call for a sizable deposit into an infrastructure fund, which he pushed last year until lawmakers received lower revenue estimates.

Nystrom said “this also has to be solved at the local level,” since municipalities and other public entities are predominantly responsible for underground water and sewer pipes. Local governments have wanted more state flexibility to ask voters for additional road revenues through local sales, gas and vehicle registration taxes.

Republican Senate Majority Arlan Meekhof of West Olive said he first wants to assess the impact of the $1.2 billion road-funding law that took effect this month before considering any new taxes or fees.

“Local governments can pass millages to support sewer lines and other things like that,” he said, when asked about situations such as the sinkhole in Fraser. “I want them to take the responsibility and find out what happened, because it’s their asset. If they ask us for help, we would consider that. But we’re not going to step in where it’s their asset to maintain and serve the customers.”

Democrats said they are open to working with Snyder on infrastructure improvements but want to see more details.

“It can’t be a half-measure,” said House Minority Leader Sam Singh of East Lansing, making reference to the 2015 road package that critics said fell short in part because it later will shift $600 million in general funds to the transportation budget. The impact of past state revenue-sharing cuts on local budgets cannot be ignored, Singh said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, who may run for governor in 2018 when Snyder leaves under term limits, said both the federal and state governments should do more to address local infrastructure problems.

“The health of those communities is very much a function of state policy,” he said, calling for a “bigger, bolder” approach to upgrading infrastructure. “The question isn’t whether we can afford to. The real question is whether we can afford not to. … If we have basically crumbling 20th century infrastructure in a 21st century economy, we’re going to lose.”