Talking Michigan Transportation

The grades are in and Michigan infrastructure still needs help

May 11, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 141
Talking Michigan Transportation
The grades are in and Michigan infrastructure still needs help
Show Notes Transcript

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released their infrastructure report card for Michigan at a May 8 news conference and gave the state a cumulative grade of C-, which counts as improvement since the previous grade was D+. 

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, two people who participated in the news conference talk about the roads component of the report card. 

First, Ron Brenke, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) of Michigan and the Michigan section of ASCE, talks about how decades of underinvestment in transportation infrastructure put Michigan where it is.

 Later, Amy O’Leary, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), explains the vital transportation needs of the communities served by her organization.

 Michigan’s grade for roads showed slight improvement, largely because of investments in state trunklines, the heaviest-traveled roads, from the MDOT’s Rebuilding Michigan program.

 From the report: 

 Traffic volumes have returned from pandemic-era lows. Vehicle miles traveled in 2021 were 97 billion, 95 percent of the 2019 number. Fortunately, the condition of roads Michiganders are driving on are improving, thanks in part to a 2017 funding package. Of Michigan’s 120,000 miles of paved federal aid-eligible roads, 25 percent are in good condition, up from 20 percent good in 2017. Forty-two percent of the roads are rated as fair, and 33 percent are in poor condition. Gov. Whitmer’s 2020 “Rebuilding Michigan Program” included $3.5 billion of one-time bond financing, accelerating major highway projects on state trunklines. To erase decades of underinvestment and meet future needs, decision-makers should increase dedicated funding for roads, re-tool fee models, prioritize traffic safety, and improve resilience to worsening environmental threats.

Jeff Cranson: Hello, this is the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson. Today I'm going to be talking with two guests about the American Society of Civil Engineers report card. They issued one for Michigan recently. Looking at infrastructure, everything from roads to bridges to water to broadband to parks, and again, Michigan's grade isn't good. They haven't done one of these since 2018, and we've got a long way to go that's probably well known to many listeners to the podcast, where we've talked a great deal about the years of underinvestment and infrastructure and what it's done. First, I'll be speaking with Ron Brenke who helped put together a news conference on Monday, May 8th to talk about this. And Ron is the Executive Director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Michigan ACEC. He has an additional role with the national organization that actually prepares the report cards as the Executive Director of the Michigan section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Again, that's ASCE. Later, I'll be speaking with Amy O’Leary, who is the Executive Director of SEMCOG Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. She participated in the news conference and can talk about some of the things that she highlighted in her remarks regarding the report card and what it said about the communities that she serves. But first, once again, I'm here with Ron Brenke. Ron, thank you for taking time to do this. 

Ron Brenke: Thanks, Jeff. Happy to do it. 

Cranson: So, talk first about ACEC, the American Council of Engineering Companies. And how that fits in with ASCE and how they all kind of work together and what your role is?

Brenke: Yeah, sure, absolutely. So ACEC is an association of engineering companies, not individuals. So, members of ACEC would be private engineering consultants throughout Michigan who work in the built environment, so they work on all types of infrastructure from roads and bridges to water, wastewater, buildings, dams, anything in the built environment. ASCE is individual civil engineers who join the society, and they are public, private engineers. They work in all different facets. They could work for contractors as well. A lot of them work for consultants, but it's more of a technical society where ACC is more focused on the business side of engineering. 

Cranson: OK, so talk about this report card. I've talked about it on previous podcast but never really delve too deeply into it. Why you do this and why it's important state by state to pay attention to it and how it can help shape the conversation and public policy.

Brenke: Yeah. So, as civil engineers I think they have a burden to help inform the public and others   about the condition of our infrastructure. Long time ago there was a lot of conversations that we are on the front lines. We see and we do the inspections of above ground and underground infrastructure and so we kind of see firsthand what the condition of a lot of these different categories are. So, the goal is really to inform the public, to be that trusted voice of professionals that this is what they do every day and really give the public an idea of the state of our infrastructure. Where we are at, where are we failing and where are we succeeding and what kind of things can we do to raise those grades, the ones that are low and really, we look at it as infrastructure drives our economy. It makes Michigan a great place to live, work and play. If we don't have good infrastructure, we're not going to attract the business. Obviously, tourism is a big thing in Michigan, and we want people to come and visit Michigan, but we have to have good parks and roads and various facilities to make that an enjoyable experience. So, the report cards started in 1998. ASCE National did their first report card and then the individual states started doing their individual report cards from that time. And nationals are great, a great body to govern to make sure that we're doing them the same way that the grades have relevance from one state to the other. 

Cranson: So, you're always an optimistic guy with a very positive outlook. How do you maintain that knowing that our state that has done so many big things, the cliche about putting the world on wheels. Of course, building the Mackinac Bridge and National mentioned many other incredible structures that are important infrastructure. And yet year after year we get these grades on our roads and bridges and don't see any sustainable solution coming forward. And these report cards are almost always the same, only the numbers change. I guess, what keeps you going? 

Brenke:   I think the small victories, right, we were really happy to see some increases in investment back in 2015 when the legislature increased the registration fees and gas tax. It's one of those things where it's not enough, right? It's not going to fix everything. But we feel like that maybe we have a little effect on that positive change, right, that if we hadn't shared the report card as in like others have shared reports on our infrastructure, maybe those changes wouldn't have happened. And so, it's the small victories I think that keep you going. You're absolutely right, Jeff. We're not getting from a D to an A overnight on these things are going to take a lot of time. It took a lot of time to get them to the poor grades due to underinvestment. So, it's going to take a while to get us under the good grades. But we're hoping that if we keep sharing this information with the right people. That they're going to show some strength and will and do something to fix it. We have hope. 

Cranson: Yeah right. And you put together a pretty broad coalition, a nice representative sample of various interests for the news conference on Monday. Rolling out this year's report card, could you talk about how you selected the people that were there? 

Brenke: Yeah, absolutely. I mean we look at it like we're all in this together, whether it's a contractor like SEMCOG is an organization that's trying to pull people together to help coordinate infrastructure projects so that we do things that efficiently. We don't tear up our road more than once. They're great partners. They're great folks to pull together and work together on fixing Michigan's infrastructure. So obviously MDOT has a major role. They've got a very large system with the most traffic, right and so ACEC and ASCE partnered with MDOT for many, many years, so it's just natural to bring them into the conversation as well. But we look at it as like we all have the same goal. We want to make improvements to our infrastructure and Michigan and so trying to get all the folks together that are part of that process. It makes sense. 

Cranson: Yeah. And as I mentioned earlier, I'll be talking later with Amy O’Leary who's the Executive Director of SEMCOG the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and obviously represents a group that has a very big interest in all of the things that you covered in the report, not just roads and bridges but parks and water too. What is your takeaway from Monday not that you would have learned anything new given how deeply you've been involved in these things for years, but did you feel like the media coverage was good and that at least you got the message out. 

Brenke: I do I thought the media coverage was very good. I think they were pretty fair and balanced in sending the message that we've made some small incremental improvements and that's just absolutely the result of prioritization by the legislature by the governor putting money into these various sectors whether it's water, wastewater or roads and bridges. I mean, I think it's great that we could show that there's some improvement that if you do invest, guess what, things do get better. But I also think they did a good job of highlighting the fact that an overall grade of a C minus for the state is nothing to be really proud of and we've got a lot of work left to do. I thought they did a pretty good job absolutely.

Cranson: Well and the governor has said herself and you've echoed in so other people in the industry and certainly people within various transportation agencies across the state that things like the 2015 plan were a good start. Even members of the legislature at the time used that kind of phrasing. The bonding. That helped the trunk lines the last few years which helped our overall grade. That's just for state trunkline because MDOT can't bond for the local roads, but all of that stuff is has made it that, but we need to do more, nobody denies that. What do you think, and I know you don't have a crystal ball but what do you think it would take for Lawmakers some kind of bipartisan support for a broader sustainable plan.

Brenke: Oh, that's $1,000,000 question. I honestly think it's going to take a variety of solutions. I don't think there's one simple solution that's going to fix everything. I think we have to look at various sources and I think that's   it's got to be a comprehensive solution obviously   trying to just raise the gas tax   it's not going to be the solution to fix everything but I but I think there are a lot of options out there on the report card gives several   different options that could be used and I think people just need to come together and really have the will to make the state better right and to everybody wants to drive on smooth roads right everybody wants clean water and great parks that are fun to visit and play at so. I think it's just pulling everybody together and looking at all the options and coming up with a comprehensive solution and then having the will to actually pass something that is sustainable and long term because that's how we get out of this. 

Cranson: Yeah, you're absolutely right. And I mentioned the Mackinaw Bridge as an example. Can find similar things in every state that that our forefathers are our grandparents or even great grandparents built and funded and had the vision to see the need and that question just stays in my mind, like what are we doing? To both sustain what they gave us and talk to them under them? And I would hope that at some point we realize we're talking about the state’s literal foundation. And that we can agree on some solutions. 

Brenke: Yes, absolutely it. I mean everybody, I think people who live in Michigan absolutely love Michigan, right. And   people who come and visit all the time are really impressed by what the state has to offer. But you hit it right on the head. The infrastructure is the foundation of everything and so we have to invest in that and people, I know it's painful. I know people don't want to pay more for anything. Inflation has been tough. There are challenges there's no question but at the end of the day it's not going to fix itself. We have a very old system and infrastructure system that's been in place for a long the interstates were built a long time ago and it needs to be repaired and we don't have a choice, honestly. And it's not going to, like I said, it's not going to fix itself. So, we have to we have to be proactive and find solutions. 

Cranson: Well said and going to that point that we live in Michigan those of us who choose to stay on purpose because it is beautiful, and the water is one of the things that makes it so beautiful and that's what gives and takes away right. I mean the Great Lakes and all the inland lakes and rivers those create unique challenges and soils and crossings and all the things we need to do with infrastructure. So, you kind of have to accept that as part of it that if you want to live in this beautiful place, it's got some unique challenges for infrastructure, and we've got to take those on. Thanks, Ron, for taking time to talk about this report card and I hope it's still continuing to create a bit of a buzz and gets people talking in the legislature.

Brenke: Yeah. Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it. I'm a civil engineer myself and even though I'm not practicing like I was, it sure is a big interest to me. And hopefully this report card makes it easy for the citizens of Michigan, legislators, municipalities, everybody to look at a simple letter grade and get a real good understanding of where we stand. So happy to be part of that. 

Cranson: Yeah. Well, like I said, you've always got a very positive outlook, always very friendly and willing to talk to anybody. So, it's you're one of the people that puts the civil in civil engineer. 

Brenke: Thanks Jeff.

Cranson: Please stay tuned. We'll be back with more Talking Michigan Transportation right after this.

MDOT Message: Know Before You Go, head on over to MiDrive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to

Cranson: So, we're back with today's second guest, Amy O’Leary, who's the Executive Director of SEMCOG Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. Amy, thanks for taking time to talk today about the ASCE report card. And let's start by talking a little bit about SEMCOG and what the organization does and your background there, 

  O’Leary: sure. Thanks Jeff. Thanks for the opportunity to come on today SEMCOG is the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments were the regional planning agency for Southeast Michigan. So, we're the metropolitan planning agency or designated transportation planning, water planning at the regional level. But we're also a Local Government Association of over 180 counties, cities, villages, townships, and education members from the Southeast Michigan area. 

Cranson: So, let's get really rudimentary here, I guess. Why are there PO's and why does there have to be an organization designated to work out his transportation issues?

 O’Leary: Sure. Well, actually some kind was formed over 50 years ago before there were MPO's because the organization was formed to work on issues that were more regional in scope and cross jurisdictional boundaries. And it was in the last 20 years or so that SEMCOG ended up becoming the MPO, which was a requirement out of the Federal Transportation Act that had regional planning organizations, MPO's do that transportation planning and that the local road funding would funnel through organizations like SEMCOG to assure that there was accountability for those federal road dollars.

Cranson: So SEMCOG wasn't an MPO before MPO’s were cool it was before they're even existed.

 O’Leary: I know it yeah that's exactly right.

Cranson: well let's talk about your role in advocating for transportation funding because I think when i first in a in a deputy position with your organization and you were showing me infographics and things even at the time to try to educate people on where we were at with our ongoing funding crisis for transportation infrastructure. Something I talked to Ron about is how he remains so optimistic after beating his head against this wall for so long and I'm sure you feel a little bit the same. What if anything gives you hope? 

O’Leary: Well, Jeff, many of my predecessors also worked on this issue. So, I think when you when you work on regional planning you just have to keep at it, and there's a lot of momentum and interest in. In really understanding the plight of what's going on with our infrastructure, and that's why we're grateful that ASCE continues to update this report card, to really shine a light on how important this issue is and to really put a letter grade to it. It makes it more real, I think, to everybody and it allows us to be able to look at it and say yes. You can look at a letter grade, you can look at the fact that in our region 17% of our local bridges are in poor condition or 40% of our local roads, which when we say local roads, those are still roads that handle a lot of traffic and in our federal aid eligible roads, 40% of those are in poor condition. And so, I just think when you work in this field, you can never give up and you just got to keep pushing and educating about the important role that infrastructure has in the well-being of our residents, but also in the economy and what's going on in the transformation in the state of Michigan. 

Cranson: So as people are more likely to support taxes, support issues, whether they are millages are or in the case of the City of Grand Rapids passed an income tax for streets at the local level, they're more inclined to trust their governments and think that they'll do the right thing with the money. Why do you think given that the state MDOT doesn't have binding authority for local roads, only for state trunk lines, and that helps push up the grade a little bit, that's $3.5 billion in investment. But overall, the locals definitely are in dire need to do you see more of them considering it, at least in your council, doing their own kinds of tax issues, asking the voters to support things dedicated to the streets.

 O’Leary: I do, Jeff, but I see it both ways. The communities really feel that the state of Michigan has a responsibility as well to be able to help provide the funding for these large roads that transfer a lot of our freight in our region as well as our population. So, I think it's a balance we are seeing more and looking at and being successful actually in local mileages when it comes to transportation. What we like to think, though, is that. It's beyond just a piece meal approach of individual communities doing that and there really needs to be a balance between individual communities and what they can do and really what they can afford to do and what the state can do. Looking at it more at a system wide approach, 

Cranson: Do you talk with your membership about tying building to the need to fund infrastructure. Because, Chad Livengood when he was still a Crains a couple of years ago did a pretty expansive story and development in Macomb County where nobody seemed to anticipate that every time you approve a housing development, it's going to entail infrastructure that has to not only be built but be sustained. And I'm sure you've seen that across Southeast Michigan. Is that a conversation that you have at the at the level of membership?

  O’Leary: One of the things that we talk about is impact fees aren't allowed in the state of Michigan, and I think many governments would wish that they were, but they aren't. So, we have to work with what we have at this point, which isn't allowing for impact fees to happen. The other is with when it comes to land use and local control. We've had communities that try to reduce the amount of development that happens and often they're sued and go to court and need to accommodate the land use change that happens regardless of what their plan is saying. So, they're in a quandary at times, Jeff, when it comes to that situation. 

Cranson: So there' planning commissions and boards of zoning appeals and the various mostly townships, their hands really are tied. There's nothing they can do if they meet all the other criteria for a development sound like.

O’Leary: Right. 

Cranson: Well, what else talk a little bit about   what you said Monday and what you felt it was important to highlight in your remarks. 

O’Leary: Sure. Thanks so much. Well, I think first of all, when we talk about transportation. It is quite a vast network in Southeast Michigan and it's large and there are many different owners and the conditions that we're in right now, for many of our bridges and our roads are in poor condition and need that investment. So, there   there is an opportunity. We successfully done some local bridge bundling programs through you at MDOT and that's worked out really well. And we also think there's opportunities in this budget for local road funding. So, we're hoping to see a little more even though at this point; that's one time investment. Every little bit helps when it comes to the need to invest in roads. At the same time, we know that we need to be looking at additional, sustained, reliable investment in our infrastructure system. The Infrastructure and JOBS Act brought in a lot of infrastructure investment. Especially in areas like broadband and some of the water infrastructure. But with roads and I know   this, it was a reauthorization and so when it came to the dollar increase in the formula funds for our local roads and bridges, we probably saw about a 15% increase in funding which between inflation and the rising cost of the projects. That really ate up that increase in that way. So, it really is time to have those conversations of switching from the gas tax to other ways of revenue streams to be able to have a more reliable additional funding and transportation. 

Cranson: Yeah, no, that's a very good point about how much of the IIJA was actually reauthorization. I think that's lost on some folks and it should be highlighted for sure. So, talk a little bit about the local funding proposals. We've got competing budget proposals from the two chambers and   one of those I think would dedicate a large portion of that money to the What is it, the 6th largest counties? What are your thoughts on that? 

 O’Leary: Well, there were two different proposals, and I think what was important was both the House and the Senate. The legislators really do recognize. That local roads are important and that they need some assistance in funding right now. How you go about it, there seems to be a difference of opinion and I think it's the Senate side had it going to some of the largest counties, whereas the House version was to go to all the counties based on population in the county. There are two different proposals out there. One was for 400 million and I believe the other was 450 million. But at this point the investment need is so large that it you need to talk about large amounts of dollars because if you really want to, if you really want to see an impact. 

Cranson: So, I'm probably not going to pin you down on which one of those you favor given that some of those counties that we're talking about make up the largest part of your membership. 

 O’Leary: That is true, Jeff. But actually, when you when you try to work through the numbers, it does seem like they both end up with a good amount of money going into our more heavily urban counties in in our region. And so, either proposal would work for SEMCOG.

Cranson: Yeah. Well said. 

 O’Leary: Thanks. 

Cranson: Thank you Amy for taking time to talk about this a little bit. We'll continue this, this fight together and hope we can get policymakers to focus on this long-term native run and I discussed it's Michigan's literal foundation and what our ancestors. Left us raises the question about what we're doing for, for our posterity and future generations. 

  O’Leary: Well, thanks for the opportunity. It's great to be able to talk to you about this issue and really and that's been a great partner in trying to move forward both   transportation funding issues but also just the changing mobility of our state and we appreciate your leadership in that as well.

Cranson: Thank you. Yeah, there's a lot going on. I’d like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple Podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball who proofs the content. Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast on various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.