Editor’s Comments: Backwater, USA

Jan. 5, 2017

I’ve let it slip out every now and then that I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, MI. Even after having moved away 20 years ago, I still consider it my hometown. I still root for the Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons, and Lions. By the way, a true fan will only admit to rooting for the Lions after being asked. It’s typically information we don’t volunteer.

Along with checking in on my professional sports teams, I also like to peruse the Detroit Free Press regularly just to keep up on what’s going on back home. Last month, I came across an opinion piece written by their Editorial Board. The title read, “Michigan becoming an infrastructure backwater.”

The article began by talking about the expansive infrastructure that exists in the United States—how we rely on it and, sometimes, take it for granted. Also, that it is aging and now failing. It mentioned the Flint water crisis, and that bad decisionmaking and lousy infrastructure were equally responsible.

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And then, the Editorial Board wrote:

After Flint happened, Gov. Rick Snyder created the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission to look into the state’s infrastructure needs, because, well, creating commissions is what we do in Michigan around areas of great need and neglect. We don’t often act to improve outcomes in those areas, particularly when the commission says the state should spend money. We just like the commissions to meet and issue reports about what might be done if we had functional government.

When the governor’s commission issued its report, the numbers didn’t seem real.

Again, from the article:

Michigan needs $4 billion more than it generates now each year to address the backlog of infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. That covers transportation, water, sewage, wastewater, storm water, energy, and communications.

We have 1,200 structurally deficient bridges, and 39% of our roads are in poor condition. We have dumped 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage into our waterways. A quarter of our beaches had to be closed for some period of time during 2015.

Obviously, Michigan is not the only state in the Union that has massive infrastructure issues. The article suggests the problem in Michigan is that when it comes to solutions, the focus is primarily (if not exclusively) on the costs. I suspect it’s the same problem across the country. Interestingly, the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission is suggesting focusing as much on the outcomes, what the results will look like and be like. Would that ease the sticker shock?

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We’re beginning the year with a new administration in the White House. There is a good amount of optimism, to go along with a good amount of lobbying, that our new President, a Republican, can work with the Senate and the House of Representatives, both of which hold a Republican majority, to finally break through the grid-lock and get started upgrading and replacing our failing infrastructure.

When I was a kid and we would drive down the John C. Lodge Freeway with its 15-foot-high cement walls, we used to think, “How cool would it be to fill it with water and cruise it on jet-skis?”

And then, it actually started happening over the last couple of years or so. The Lodge Freeway (along with other low-lying highways) would fill with floodwaters. You may not know this, but there are dozens of pump houses all over Metro Detroit specifically to keep the roads from flooding. The thing is, less than 1/3 of the 140 pump houses are rated as “good,” with slightly more than 1/2 of them labelled as being in “poor condition.” This is infrastructure that’s 40 to 50 years old, and it’s just one of the contributing factors.

Jet-skiing on a flooded Lodge Freeway? Not so cool anymore. In fact it’s kind of backwater.