Spending Money Is Not Leadership
Now that Michigan voters have mercilessly dispatched Proposal 1 to the garbage can of history, lets talk a bit about the philosophy of a truly effective plan to get Michigan’s roads and bridges up to par. This will provide a proper foundation for developing a ‘Plan B’ which will actually improve Michigan’s roads and bridges, and be acceptable to the population as well.
The underlying premise of Proposal 1 was that the only action required to fix up Michigan’s roads and bridges was injecting big money into the Michigan Transportation Fund. The depraved philosophy of modern American government. Not true and the voters knew it. But Michigan’s power elite believed that opposition could be neutralized by icing a pile of feces with chocolate frosting. Didn’t work despite a lavish $ 10 million effort.
The condition of Michigan’s roads and bridges has only a casual relationship with the funds available in the MTF. In 2014, 11% of MTF funds were siphoned off by various State of Michigan Departments in the form of charge backs for ‘services’ rendered to the MTF, as well as priority grants that have little to do with roads and bridges. Debt service is also a component of this 11%, but that is effectively a payment for previous time preferences of bureaucrats and politicians. Then 9.5% of the remainder was diverted to the Comprehensive Transportation Fund for mass transit. Finally, the MTF was partitioned amongst the State Trunkline Fund (36%), county road agencies (34.6%), and cities (19.8%). In each partition, further funds are siphoned off by charge backs, pension payments, and OPEBs. What’s left for the roads is more a function of politicians and bureaucrats preferences at every level than the amount of money front loaded into the MTF.
So how do we proceed? First develop a philosophy to frame and inform the ‘Plan B’ debate. After the fold.
Its About Roads & Bridges, and Only Roads & Bridges
The issue weighing on Michigan’s body politic here is roads and bridges. Not bus transportation, not rail transportation, not bike trails, not EITC, not public employees’ pensions, not Michigan’s credit rating, not any of the other baubles in Proposal 1. Only roads and bridges. Any attempt to piggyback other political baubles on a roads and bridges package will incite hostility from the body politic and assure failure.
The Legislature is Not an Executor
Many Proposal 1 ‘No’ voters were quoted in the media that “the Legislature didn’t do its job” when asked why they were opposed to Proposal 1. This is very wrong. The Michigan Legislature is not an executive instrument by law or in practice. Our Legislature is a bountiful source of trial balloons, a wonderful debating society, an editor, a stamp of approval, and the people’s final auditor of government performance. But there are far too many people in the Legislature of equal standing for the Legislature to competently direct Michigan’s vast government, much less MDoT. SML Meekhof and Speaker Cotter represent limited constituencies and hold mandates to organize and direct the Legislature, not the Michigan government. Herding cats aptly describes the futility of transforming the legislative process into an executive instrument. Plan B must come from the Governor. The Legislature can suggest, debate, edit, approve, and evaluate – but the plan must be constructed and rationalized by our Governor. Governor Snyder abdicated his executive responsibility in December lame duck and Proposal 1 came out a witches’ brew.
Honest Appraisal of Current Infrastructure Conditions
The TRIP and TAMC ‘measurements’ of Michigan’s road & bridge condition are shameless lies developed exclusively for political purposes. An honest appraisal of Michigan’s roads and bridges is essential to know what needs to be fixed and develop a public consensus behind any funding proposal. You cannot fix a problem whose scale, locality, and severity you do not know.
Align Taxes Extracted With Damages Done
Passenger vehicles pay the vast majority of road and bridge costs in the State of Michigan, but do very little of the damage to roads and bridges. Trucks do, and even MDoT tacitly admits this in their Remaining Service Life calculations. RSL is the actual measure that MDoT uses to prioritize the scope and scale of road maintenance. The burden of road repairs should be transitioned to trucks, a sticky proposition politically due to the political presence of industry in Michigan and economically due to opportunities for evasion created by the open nature of travel in America.
This said, passenger vehicles represent the vast majority of vehicles on Michigan’s roads. Passenger vehicles should bear the burden for new road and bridge construction, especially where that construction is undertaken to alleviate congestion or improve safety. Accurately attributing costs is the fundamental element of economic efficiency.
Genuine Infrastructure Research
MDoT actually has a moribund Transportation Research Board, but it does not appear to have met even once during the Snyder Governorship. MTRB should be tasked with identifying the technical challenges presented by Michigan’s roads and bridges, then recommending the research to solve these challenges. Much has been made of the freeze-thaw cycle’s deleterious effects on Michigan’s roads, but technology advances and solves such problems economically. Michigan actually has many more unaddressed technical challenges in constructing and maintaining roads and bridges, but MDot is oblivious. All we get is TRIP and TAMC lies masquerading as research. We need to know how to build better, at a lower cost, and repair less often. MTRB can tell us how.
Actual List of Projects Needed
The deceitful TRIP and TAMC ‘measurements’ were generally accompanied by anal estimates of Michigan’s infrastructure deficit generated by various ‘analysts’ during the Proposal 1 debate. Dollar numbers in the billions were thrown around as either annual or total requirements with no substantiation whatsoever. Our screwball media regurgitated these estimates; few of which passed the laugh test. A public, dynamic, statewide list of projects needed to restore Michigan’s roads and bridges – with each individual project’s estimated costs and responsibility – will be the essential basis of restoring public faith in our bureaucrats and politicians.
Michigan government units provide a decent picture of their expenditures via audited Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports. CAFRs have some hocus-pocus, especially where employee benefits and funds transfers are involved, but they generally conform to GAAP standards. These CAFRs do not, however, provide the public with any measure of what was accomplished by expending MTF funds. The blow out Proposal 1 result should inform politicians and bureaucrats at all levels that few Michiganders believe MTF revenues are well spent. Accountability is most inadequate at the lowest levels of Michigan’s government structure: counties and municipalities. All units of Michigan government spending MTF funds should report, at least annually, what they accomplished with those MTF funds. Governor Snyder likes ‘dashboards’, except when it comes to roads and bridges.
Rein in MDoT
Section 28 of Article V of Michigan’s 1963 Constitution dictates that “The director of the state department of transportation….. shall be responsible for executing the policy of the state transportation commission.” This does not happen in practice and the MDoT organizational chart blatantly confirms this. MDoT views STC as a mere appendage. The Michigan STC is a political collection of nonentities who rubber stamp policy and decisions arising from the bowels of MDoT. Not a single professional engineer. No one with an MBA. No one to challenge entrenched bureaucrats. No one capable of providing competent, independent counsel to the Governor and Legislature.
The inadequacy of the Michigan STC is a fault of Michigan’s 1963 Constitution. Con-Con organized the STC as a political body, rather than a technical body. MDoT does have an internal ‘Engineering Operations Committee‘, but the STC doesn’t even get copied on their monthly meeting minutes. Wouldn’t make much difference, STC members wouldn’t understand their content or their implications for policy. Michigan’s STC should have been organized by regions, based upon lane-miles of roads. There should be technical and/or financial qualifications for membership. Our Governor and Legislature can patch this constitutional error by appointing and confirming qualified STC members, but in the long term the STC must be redefined in the State Constitution if our roads and bridges are to be restored.
Statewide Expenditure Standards
60% of MTF funds are expended at the county and local level according to Public Act 51 of 1951, as amended. Expenditure prudence varies wildly across the state, from the skinflints in Allegan to the wastrels of Wayne. You only need to look at the I-94 bridge over US 24 or the Bagley Pedestrian Bridge over I-75 to understand how politically ordered extravagances stole funds from road repairs in Wayne County. There should be fiduciary standards governing the expenditure of MTF funds. MTF funds are collected from taxpayers across our state and the State of Michigan should demand some minimal level of responsibility in their expenditure. These fiduciary standards should extend to employment benefits as well; a coming crisis. Counties and local governments should not be prohibited from extravagances, but they should pay for those extravagances with locally raised funds, not State raised road funds. The process of reconciling expenditures to standards will also tell Michiganders a lot more about how their roads funds are being spent.
MDoT needs to establish a public database which publishes project plans, RFQs, contract bids, contracts, and completion documentation for all their projects. Some of this information is publicly available, but most is screened behind a veil of confusion. Why we are paying outrageous leasing fees for idle passenger rail cars. Legitimate concerns over the proprietary information of contractors exist, but these can be addressed. Until the Michigan public can see what goes into build and repair projects, they will not accept that road and bridge funds are well spent.
Time Delineate and Limit Plan B
Ultimately, a competent State Transportation Commission should construct a detailed plan to bring Michigan’s roads and bridges up to an acceptable standard. This plan should have a finite lifespan, say 10 years, and detail the expenditures required by year. Only then should the issue of funding be raised in the Legislature. Asking the Legislature to hand over bags of new taxpayer money without an agreed upon expenditure plan is entirely ridiculous. Jacking up taxes forever without a realistic plan is nothing less than theft by government.
The condition of Michigan’s roads and bridges reflects a complete managerial failure at all levels of Michigan’s many governments. My Slavic cousins, the Russians, like to say that “a fish rots from the head back”. It is long past time to demand that our Governor demonstrate his much proclaimed leadership, financial, and managerial skills. Pouring money into a failed system will achieve little more than intensified political acrimony. Where we are now.