Talking Michigan Transportation

Meet Mike Hayes, chair of the STC

January 03, 2024 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 6 Episode 167
Talking Michigan Transportation
Meet Mike Hayes, chair of the STC
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Mike Hayes, who was recently named chair of the Michigan State Transportation Commission (STC). 

Hayes, who has been active in community affairs in Midland for many years and served in the Michigan House of Representatives, has been a member of the STC since 2011. He talks about how his background as a community leader and lawmaker informed his thinking about transportation infrastructure and how his views have evolved. 

Also discussed: 

  • The commission’s role and what he considers their most significant action in recent years, approving the bonds for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s $3.5 billion Rebuilding Michigan initiative; 
  • How commissions can stay abreast of rapidly developing technologies and innovations in transportation; 
  • His service representing Michigan on the International Authority, the body overseeing construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge. The International Authority consists of six members with equal representation from Canada and Michigan. Two members are appointed by Canada, one appointed by Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA) and three appointed by Michigan. 
Jeff Cranson:

Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. First I want to wish everyone a happy new year. Welcome to the first podcast of 2024. Mike Hayes, recently appointed as Chairman of the State Transportation Commission, has actually been a member of the commission for some 12 years. It's a little bit unusual that someone has served that long and now ascends to be Chairman of the commission, and he has a lot of experience. He was also a state lawmaker, very active in his community of Midland for many years, and brings a lot of knowledge and background to this position. So, I think you'll enjoy hearing from him what he's learned during his years on the commission about transportation and his understanding of what the commission does and his goals for the future. So again, I hope you enjoy the conversation. So, Mike Hayes, once again thank you for coming on the podcast it's your first time and happy new year. I hope you and your family had great holidays.

Mike Hayes:

Jeff, we did. It was tremendous and we could use a little snow. We're a true Michigan family and we like white Christmases and we like winter, but other than that it's been pretty great. We're real hopeful for a great 2024.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I'm with you there and I'm very concerned about the Northern Michigan economy, not just because I'm a skier, but because it really matters to a lot of those businesses. So, yeah, let's hope we get some snow soon. So, let's b efore we start talking about your work on the commission and what you've done and what you've learned and what you hope to do, let's talk a little bit about your background, both as a state lawmaker, a former Midland County clerk, someone who's been very active in your community. I know how much you love Midland and what a good booster you are for everything that goes on there, from the arts to, you know, the baseball team and the baseball field, just everything. You're a total community guy, so could you talk a little about that?

Mike Hayes:

Sure, yeah, I've been very blessed. Coming right out of Central Michigan University , fire up chips, my wife and I came over here to Midland and we've been here ever since and this community has been a great place to live. I've been blessed to be in local government and then state government as a state legislator back in the 80s and then went on out of there and into the private sector for 20 years and then kind of into the philanthropic sector after that. So I had a real buried career, if you might call it that, and every challenge has been fun, interesting and a growth experience for me. So, it's given me a real good perspective. I think my private sector experience was both national and international. So, I think I bring to the commission maybe a real, real broad set of experiences that I can always have in the back of my mind and apply to whatever we're considering or deliberating during commission meetings.

Jeff Cranson:

So let's talk about your appointment to the commission. I think you were first appointed in 2011. Is that right?

Mike Hayes:

I was. It's been, it's been quite a while. Yeah, Governor Snyder originally appointed me and Governor Whitmer's been great in reappointing me now twice. I just I've enjoyed it. It was not an area that I was necessarily directly involved in, even when I was in the legislature, in transportation that is, but I've learned so much and I think I bring some perspective and I feel like transportation maybe the most uniform public capability that we need for industry, commerce, agriculture, tourism and, frankly, the day-to-day lives of 10 million citizens of Michigan as we, as we go about our lives and I am just I'm pleased to be able to sit on the commission and now, as chairman, to to To make sure, do whatever I can, what little bit I can, working with the, the tremendous employees in the department to make sure that that we're providing enough and safe and and highly efficient Efficient transportation systems throughout state of Michigan.

Jeff Cranson:

Yes, so you do bring a unique perspective, both because you were in business a very important business that had a lot, obviously, a lot of stake in logistics, and so you understand the importance of transportation infrastructure. As you say, it's the most uniform, I like to say, more than any other function of government. It touches you from the minute you leave your house until the minute you get home every day. But what do you think, opinions or thoughts did you come to the commission with? Like a lot of people you know everybody complains about, about transportation, and you know whether it's in their community and what the local street department's doing, or whether it's what the county road commission's doing or whether it's what the state department's doing. And then, when you get inside and you get to know these people that are real human beings, who are, are in your community and care just as much as you do about being good stewards of the public dollars and about mobility and getting us where we need to go efficiently and safely, it starts to change your attitudes, and I know I've heard you had this discussion with other commissioners about the things that you've learned, so could you talk a little bit about that?

Mike Hayes:

Sure. Well, you know all of us that drive automobiles, you know we're all experts on roads and road construction. Say that tongue-in-cheek, but you know all my friends and relatives and acquaintances. Everybody's got an opinion on, as you say, public roads. But frankly, I've traveled all over the country to our youngest son lives and has lived in other states. Everybody loves to pick on their transportation department and, like I say, everybody's an expert on roads. But what I found in in my number of years on the commission is a term, just a tremendous respect for the highly talented and capable people and dedicated people in the Michigan Department of Transportation we have some of the best minds when it comes to road design, civil infrastructure that I think we could ever ask for. We have highly educated, highly trained, highly capable people that show up every day with a tremendous dedication to the citizens, wanting to provide absolutely the best roads they can. Now, they can't work miracles and they can't print money. So you know they're always up against the challenge of road funding and though we've made some progress with the bond issue that Governor Whitmer's administration proposed and the commission approved here a couple years ago, we're still seeing the MDOT employees challenged to be able to provide everything they'd like to provide, but I think they do a tremendous job. I also think I've developed over the years and is an insight into the use of best practices from across the country that MDOT seeks out and and utilizes wherever they can. I don't think MDOT's afraid to copy what other states are doing and doing well when it makes sense here in Michigan. I also don't think that MDOT staff hesitates to set the benchmark and I think they do in many aspects. So I'm not sure I had that. I know I didn't have that perspective when I first came on the commission, but I've developed a tremendous amount of respect and I think that the citizens of Michigan should feel pretty darn proud of the Michigan Department of Transportation and the work they do day in and day out.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I think, as I came into this job and I learned about asset management, which is one of those buzz terms that kind of goes right over your head until you start to think about it and you find out that Michigan has been lauded nationally for years as being a leader in exercising asset management principles and it's creative and it's certainly innovative. But it was also out of necessity, because if you're chronically underfunded, you've got to figure out ways to stretch the money and it'd be great to rebuild everything that needs to be rebuilt, but that's just not financially possible. So I think that MDOT engineers over decades have become very good at figuring out how to manage those resources and make them go as far as they can. So I really appreciate what you're saying and what you've learned about that. Talk about the commission's role, because I suspect a lot of people, even people that are in transportation circles, don't really understand what the State Transportation Commission does and can do.

Mike Hayes:

I think that's a good question because when I talk with people, for example okay, you're on the State Transportation Commission, why don't you get this road over here fixed? The commission does not function at all at that level, that really those kind of decisions are left to the professionals that know what they're doing and are highly trained. In that regard. We are a constitutional entity and the Constitution basically calls for us to be policymaking. We set overall policy for the Department of Transportation, programs and facilities and other transportation development throughout the country, throughout the state. Excuse me, so that's our primary is policy. And then we also oversee the development of a comprehensive transportation plan that's renewed every five years or every year, on a five year rotating basis. Not only people understand that, that there is a five year comprehensive plan for transportation and it's revisited every single year and moved out you know, a year, five years at a time and the commission oversees that, reviews it twice after public input and then passes it onto the legislature for action. And then there is an oversight of the administration of state and federal funds. That doesn't mean that we get into, like I say, individual projects, but the stewardship of state and federal resources in an overall basis is something that the state transportation commission has on its menu of responsibilities as well, stay with us.

Jeff Cranson:

We'll have more on the other side of this important message.

MDOT Message:

Did you know? Newton's first law of motion states that a body in motion will continue moving at the same speed and same direction, while the second law states that an object acted upon by the force will undergo Wait, I thought this was a snow plow safety message. It is, which is why this is relevant. Don't you think that's complicating things just a bit? Not at all. A snow plow weighs 17 times more than your average car. Right, and snow plows tend to travel at slower than posted speeds. So the third law states that action and reaction are equal and opposite. I think it's easier just to remind motorists to give plows the room they need to do their jobs. Follow at a safe distance and don't drive into snow clouds, things like that. Well, if you're gonna make it that simple, why don't you just say don't crowd the plow? Great idea stay safe this winter. Don't crowd the plow. That's it. Yeah, that's it.

Jeff Cranson:

You mentioned briefly the governor's rebuilding Michigan bonding plan, which the commission authorized in January of 2020, which it seems it's surreal not to think about thats when the pandemic was starting to hit our shores and we were hearing about it, but we didn't know then what was coming just a couple months later, that's for sure. So it seems like a long time ago. But talk about that in terms of the significance of all the things that the commission can do making that decision to go ahead and authorize those bonds to make a big difference in the shorter term, because we know that there was no other way to fund the repairs that needed to be made.

Mike Hayes:

Well, I have to look back over the last 10 or 11 years that I've been on the commission that, as that's probably the most significant action we took and could have taken we aren't in a position to raise funds for roads and bridges and such. That's just not part of our authority. That's part of the legislature's responsibility and in cooperation with the administration. And so I think when that came before us, we were very frustrated for a number of years about the lack of funding and the inability to kind of get a political solution. So this was a solution that had been used by previous administrations from both parties, and that is to commit to bonds on a long-term basis to bring more immediate funds into the state coffers to deal with roads and bridges, the way we ought to responsibly do. And that came before us and it was not without some controversy. Committing to long-term bonding is a huge commitment on the part of the commission and the administration on the behalf of the people of Michigan. I think we did that with great discussion and deliberation and took the action, and I think we're all very proud that we did do that.

Jeff Cranson:

So talk a little bit about the deliberations that went into that. I mean, you come from a fiscally conservative background, from your time in the legislature and your time as a local official. What was your thought process on going ahead and authorizing up to $3.5 billion in bonds?

Mike Hayes:

It was certainly not a decision that I made easily. You're right, I've always tried to be fiscally responsible, but I think this was the fiscally responsible thing to do because we could not continue to see the safety and jeopardized and the deterioration of the roads continue and there was not enough funds available. There were not enough funds available for the proper maintenance of the roads throughout Michigan. This provides a a financial mechanism that allowed some advance, reaching out into the future and getting some funds, bringing them in and then paying them back in the form of bonds, like I say, it was done in previous administrations on both parties. It's not an uncommon tool to use, for state and local government to do bonded indebtedness in order to meet an immediate need, and I think it was absolutely the responsible thing to do. Going back to some of my original comments on how important the transportation a safe, efficient transportation system is to the economy and to the day-to-day activities of Michigan citizens, it was absolutely the most responsible thing we could do at the time. If the legislature were chosen to go a different route, that would have been great, but they didn't seem to want to do that, so this was the next best option.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, that's very well said. I only wish that the people who are critics of debt and say that you're burdening future generations with debt would come to the realization that by not doing anything, you're leaving your posterity a lot more debt, with crumbling roads and bridges. That seemed to be lost on a lot of the critics, so I think that-.

Mike Hayes:

Excellent point, yeah.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, and in the long term. At the time that you guys were making that decision, interest rates were really good and money was cheap and it was a prudent thing to do. I've heard that from accountants and people who are very fiscally conservative and would make an argument of one debt is effective and when it makes a lot of sense. So talk about the challenges that are on the horizon and maybe what would you like to do as chair and you've been acting chair for a couple of meetings because you were vice chairman and there wasn't a chairman at the time but now that you are fully ensconced in the chair's role, what are some of the things that you'd like to see happen?

Mike Hayes:

Well, I've done some thinking on that. I do have the advantage of having been on the commission for quite a while and I think that serves that will serve the people in Michigan well to have an experienced person sitting there, and I do appreciate Governor Whitmer's vote of confidence to place me in the chair. I think there are a couple of things I'd like to think about. I think the policy making, as I said, is one of our big responsibilities and I think it's time that maybe we go back and do some looking at overall MDOT policy to make sure it's kept up with the times and that we're we have policy in place and thinking in place that makes you know, reduces any risk that we may have. Things are changing a lot in transportation and I would hope that and I think that's the Brad Wieferich, our MDOT director, and the senior staff are committed to looking at risk and I think we ought to kind of be joined at the hip on that and looking at kind of risk concerns that we may have over time. Second is, I think that attraction and retention of talent for MDOT. I do stay involved out there in a number of different ways and everybody's having trouble with attraction and retention, and so I want to I hope we'll talk with the MDOT administration over the coming months about the solid plans for attraction and retention and areas of concern and anything we can do to be helpful in making sure we can continue to draw the kind of talent that we are blessed to be able to do throughout MDOT's history. So, I think those are probably a couple of the things that I'd like to think about early on in 2024.

Jeff Cranson:

Lastly, let's talk a little bit about the other hat that you wear as a member of the International Authority, which is a group comprised of members of both Canada and from Michigan to work jointly to oversee the building of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, arguably the most iconic structure, most significant infrastructure building project that we'll see in our lifetimes, probably second only to the Mackinac Bridge in terms of what it will mean to the state's skyline as it towers as high as the Renaissance Center. What have you learned along the way with that? Tell me your thoughts about being part of that project.

Mike Hayes:

Well, that could probably take the rest of the day, Jeff, it's been tremendous, it's been an honor, an unbelievable honor to serve. As you said, when you have an international crossing like that, you have to have an ownership entity that is made up of the two governments. We have three Canadians and three Michiganians who make up that international authority. That is the ownership, represents the ownership, if you will. It's been a tremendous responsibility to represent the people of Michigan and the United States as a member of that body and going on now our 10th year. You're right. That project, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, will be an economic development and quality of life project that's going to serve the people of Canada, the people of the United States and the people of Michigan for generations to come. It's going to be beautiful. More importantly, it's going to be a huge artery for transportation of goods between our two great countries. Canada is our biggest trading partner and vice versa. We really need that bridge as a choke point, as it sits right now in that border crossing. This was a great opportunity to come together as two countries, to be farsighted and to build something that, as I say, is going to serve for generations to come. I sit on that in kind of an unlimited appointment and plan to be driving over that bridge when it opens in a couple of years. People want to get excited because they're kind of seeing the bridge deck coming together in the middle of the river. I don't want to get too excited that that means the bridge is complete, because that's just part of it. It's a huge $5 billion plus project and there's still a lot of work to do.

Jeff Cranson:

I learned a lot early on as then Governor Snyder made the case for the bridge and found a way to work with the Canadians with the Canadians financing it how important it was across the state. Even my friends at the Chamber of Commerce and business leaders in West Michigan were huge supporters right from the beginning. One in seven jobs in West Michigan are tied to trade with Canada. My friend, Birgit Klohs you've gotten to know as a fellow member of the IA makes a really good case about its importance to the whole state. A lot of people probably wouldn't have realized that this part of the state would rely on that so much too. It's a great thing and I really look forward to the opening. I know you do too. Mike, thanks for taking time to talk about this and everything going on with the commission. We'll have to have you on again in a few months to see how things are going and what you think about as things go forward.

Mike Hayes:

Well, I appreciate the opportunity, Jeff, and I look forward to working with anybody and everybody that's concerned about committed to having the kind of transportation system that we've enjoyed over the years, and one that we need to maintain and grow as we need to in Michigan, because there's nothing more critical to, as I said in the beginning, there's nothing more critical to the efficient commerce, industry and agriculture, tourism and our day-to-day lives than a great transportation system. So it's an honor to serve and I look forward to talking with folks over the coming months.

Jeff Cranson:

Thank you again, Mike. I wish you luck as you take over as chairman. Thank you, Jeff. 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 talents and 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 of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

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