The state of Michigan roads has always been a hot topic, but when Governor Gretchen Whitmer released her proposed budget last month the issue came into sharper focus - especially for the state’s rural areas.
Under the proposal a forty-five cent increase in the gas tax would fund road work projects and an adjustment to how those funds are distributed would channel most of the money to the state’s most highly traveled roadways. Seen through to the end, it could be a mixed outcome for Isabella county motorists.
According to a report released last year through a partnership between Middle Michigan Development Corporation (MMDC), Greater Gratiot Development, Inc, and the East Michigan Council of Governments, completing work to make US-127 a limited access expressway all the way through central Michigan could have tremendous economic impact here. And US-127 is an example of one of the main arteries Governor Whitmer’s team has cited as being eligible for primary funds under the plan.
Currently, a sixteen-mile stretch of US-127 between St. Johns and Ithaca just south of Isabella county remains accessible at intersections with most county roads, an arrangement that poses both safety concerns and economic barriers to the communities alongside and north of that stretch.
Part of the sixteen-mile stretch of US-127 that needs updating is pictured facing north at the M-57 overpass in Gratiot County
“When you’re looking at companies that are considering expansions, they have a check list [that they use to select where to expand].” says MMDC President and CEO Jim McBryde, “They hire site selectors who look nation wide, and they use that check list. One of the most common check list items is close proximity to a limited access expressway. North of St. Johns, we get excluded quite early in the process.”
While McBryde acknowledges that it’s impossible to know the exact economic impact of transitioning that stretch of US-127 to fully limited-access ahead of time, he says the project would at least remove barriers that contribute to the area being passed over right now. That would be a very good thing for area residents, more than sixty percent of whom cited “having jobs that pay enough for people to live on,” as a major need in a recent Isabella County Needs Assessment Survey administered by the Center for Applied Research and Rural Studies at CMU and released by the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation.
“It’s difficult to know what you’re not going to get,” said McBryde, “What we do know is that it has been very difficult to land companies to consider this area and they most often cite the infrastructure. We have the quality of talent, even with low unemployment.”
How the plan affects that talent pool - the individuals who live and work in Isabella county and surrounding areas - will depend a lot on how it’s executed in the end though.
According to U.S. Census data, workers in Isabella county spend an average of 18.2 minutes commuting to work, and that figure is even higher for workers in neighboring counties. In Clare County it jumps nearly ten minutes to 27.1 minutes. Doubled for the day’s round trip to and from work, that means the talented men and women working for Isabella county’s employers are spending anywhere from 36 to 54 minutes in the car just for work.
Though Governor Whitmer’s plan calls for cuts to other tax burdens for individuals in an effort to offset the expense of higher gas prices, it may not be enough for households with longer commutes for everything from work to school to recreational opportunities that boost health and wellness.
McBryde says the first step is always getting some kind of proposal on the table, and that’s a good thing. “The governor deserves credit for putting a proposal out that fully funds our roads, bridges and infrastructure,” said McBryde, “I applaud the effort, but I don’t believe the final solution will look exactly as she’s proposed.”