VOICES: Infrastructure key to Southeast Michigan’s future

If you live in Southeast Michigan, you know that two critical issues for our future are infrastructure and the economy. In this way, we are similar to the rest of the country, yet our challenges and opportunities are as unique as our region and state. This is why Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, appointed by Governor Snyder, published its report this past December to lay out a long-term strategy for our state’s transportation, water, sewer, stormwater, wastewater treatment and drainage, energy, and communications systems.

SEMCOG, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, has worked on infrastructure issues since the 1970s, and we know that quality infrastructure is the very foundation of the health and economic prosperity of our region. It is particularly important that we take a holistic approach, moving beyond the typical “silos” to take a comprehensive look at all types of infrastructure from several angles, including:When given the opportunity to share SEMCOG’s findings with the 21st Century Commission, we provided data and information and our experience with transportation asset management – and how this approach can be used to better manage other infrastructure systems. 

We also shared that to have quality infrastructure, we need to: 
  • Strategically invest more,
  • Collect data so that we can invest wisely, and
  • Require coordination among public and private infrastructure providers to reduce costs and disruption to the public.

On Friday, January 27, a panel of experts from Southeast Michigan who served on the Commission shared their insights with local officials on SEMCOG’s Executive Committee. Each of them presented a keen perspective on the importance of addressing our state’s infrastructure and what the Commission envisions for our future.

Kathleen LomakoJohn Walsh, Governor Snyder’s Director of Strategy, alluded to the enormity of the issue. “This is not just Michigan,” Walsh said. “There’s a problem in our entire country with our infrastructure.” In the report, the commission recommends an additional $4 billion of investment in order for Michigan to address the shortfall in funds needed to maintain adequate infrastructure. As Walsh said, there is not $4 billion in the state’s general fund to cover the gap, so that funding will have to come from an assortment of sources at the local, state, and federal levels.

“We are going to have to approach the taxpayer and say that we are underfunding our systems,” said Walsh. One of the key steps for the state going forward will be the creation of the Michigan Infrastructure Council, which will spearhead the statewide effort to work on the long-term task of maintaining our infrastructure. 

Kirk Steudle, Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, described a couple of potential approaches to shoring up the funding gap in the transportation realm. Gas tax revenue has been dropping since 2004 due to increased fuel efficiency. To address this issue, Steudle described a “per-mile fee system” in which drivers would pay per mile driven. A fee of one cent per mile driven would equate to roughly the same revenue that the gas tax provides now while providing more stability, as it would rely on actual miles traveled rather than a dropping fuel consumption rate. Steudle also alluded to the possibility of introducing tolls to our state transportation system, citing the hypothetical example of a modest (five cent) toll on an existing Southeast Michigan roadway, US-23, that could generate $138 million a year. 

As we listened to each panel member share their insights, it was apparent that, in addition to producing an excellent report, the commission added a tremendous value by bringing experts together. Breaking down silos of information and acknowledging the degree to which all our infrastructure systems interrelate will be key to innovative problem-solving. Infrastructure assets we often think of include roads, bridges, and sewers as well as large-scale utility operations such as DTE Energy. In order for each of these systems to be monitored efficiently and effectively, coordination is critical. Nothing frustrates residents more than seeing a brand new road getting torn up so that a utility that runs underneath can be replaced. 

Michigan is home to the most private well and septic systems in the country. While better data is needed, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) estimates that 10 percent or more are failing. Evan Pratt, Water Resources Commissioner for Washtenaw County and the third member of our panel, noted, “There are actually 49 states in the United States that have a statewide uniform septic code, but unfortunately we're not one of them.”

Addressing this issue would help to ensure safety and reliability while minimizing environmental threats. “Infrastructure is worth more than anything your community or your jurisdiction owns,” said Pratt. With the immense price tag of our infrastructure, achieving better coordination with effective standards will require significant investment, but economies of scale and avoiding crises when neglected systems fail will save us money in the long run.

Robert Daddow, Deputy County Executive for Oakland County, provided insight on the economic implications of our state’s infrastructure. To illustrate the significance, Daddow pointed north to the Soo Locks, which are the only point of connection between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. “Eleven million jobs are dependent on the Soo Locks,” he said. If the locks were to fail, there would be significant hardships not only for Michigan, but for the United States. This is why Governor Snyder is working to ensure that this passageway remains operational. As Daddow said, “We can't continue to allow deferred maintenance to denigrate our infrastructure.”

It was clear from discussion with local government leaders on our Executive Committee that regional priorities include coordination and right-sizing of our infrastructure assets to avoid unnecessary spending, participation at the local level, and the removal of barriers that prevent key information from being shared and utilized. SEMCOG has already begun efforts to map underground utilities and combine this with our roadway condition data, in cooperation with local governments in the region. 
The update of our Water Resources Plan will include a major focus on drinking-, waste- and stormwater infrastructure. The integrity of our infrastructure systems is essential to the future of our region, and we stand ready to provide our expertise, knowledge, and experience as we continue to work with the state and our communities on this vitally important task.

Kathleen Lomako is the Executive Director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG).