How the coronavirus is affecting plans to fix Michigan roads

Posted at 4:33 AM, May 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-12 18:42:06-04

It was the top political conversation in Michigan: Roads. Then, COVID-19 hit.

“All the problems we had prior to COVID are waiting for us on the other side,” said Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Jack O’Malley, a Republican who represents Michigan’s 101st district, which includes Leelanau, Benzie, Manistee and Mason counties.

Right now however, lawmakers in Michigan don’t know how much money they have to work with this time around, yet. The Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference is scheduled for Friday May 15. It’s a summit that helps project the state’s revenue and informs budget decisions.

As Michigan begins to rebound from COVID-19, the conversation will likely steer back to what’s being done about the roads once more when more people get back to driving on them and are reminded they’re ranked some of the worst in the country.

In her January State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer emphasized why fixing Michigan’s roads matters to Michiganders.

“Michigan families pay more than $600 a year in car repairs,” said Whitmer. “That’s money that could go into your childcare budget or your retirement fund, or rent.”

All of these payments are more cumbersome in the wake of COVID-19 for many Michiganders.

“Spending the money now? It’s not in the budget, for a lot of people or myself,” said Livonia contractor Josh Robinson.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss says that if the issue had been properly addressed by the legislature in previous budgets, road construction could’ve been a main avenue for more construction workers recovering financially from the pandemic.

“We could have been putting people back to work had we taken the opportunity last year to invest in roads,” said Moss, a democrat who represents Southfield.

According to an April report by Michigan’s Transportation Asset Management Council, investment is still needed. However, the state’s revenue to pay for that investment is powered by the state’s people working, traveling and spending.

All things stalled as the coronavirus started coursing through Michigan, paving the way to record unemployment.

“Just in March, the money brought in by gas tax was $20 million less than the year before and April is expected to be even worse because in April we were in the lockdown,” said Rep. O’Malley.

Now, the clock is ticking for lawmakers to hash out road funding and other critical state budget issues. After last year’s prolonged budget battle in Lansing, the legislature imposed a July 1 deadline for this time around.

“It’s going to get down to what is essential. Obviously having roads that are unsafe, that is an essential item,” said State Sen. Jim Runestad, an Oakland County Republican.

Carlyle, a Detroit resident, put it even more bluntly how the quality of roads translates to the speed of Michigan’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

“Getting people back to work is the most important thing,” said Carlyle. “But in a way where it’s practical where you’re not putting people at risk. If the roads aren’t put together, if the roads aren’t safe then people can’t get to work.”