Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about her Rebuilding Michigan plan

Show Notes:

On this week’s edition of Talking Michigan Transportation, a conversation with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about her Rebuilding Michigan plan, announced in her State of the State address Wednesday.,9309,7-387-90499_91277---,00.html

The State Transportation Commission (STC) voted Thursday to authorize $3.5 billion in State Trunkline Fund bonds to rebuild some key roads and bridges on the state’s most heavily traveled corridors. View the STC discussion and vote.

Gov. Whitmer explains her decision to employ the bonding tool, used several times by the past several governors, after the Legislature did not act on her far-reaching 2019 proposal to invest in roads at all levels. This analysis from the House Fiscal Agency explains the process and offers details on previous MDOT bond sales.,4616,7-151-9620_91685---,00.html

And will transportation funding be mentioned when she delivers the Democratic response to the State of the Union address next week?



Narrator: It's Time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT communications director Jeff Cranson.

Jeff Cranson: Once again, this is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I’m Jeff Cranson, director of communications at MDOT and I’m very pleased to have with me today an especially special guest, the Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. Thanks for doing this.

Gov. Whitmer: I’m glad to be here. I love spending time with you, that’s why I want to fix the damn roads so much.

[Both laugh]

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, if we finally do it, we won’t see each other anymore. So, big day. Big couple days.

Gov. Whitmer: Yep

Jeff Cranson: Last night your speech rolled out what was much rumored in terms of bonding. What brought you to this decision after everything you’ve been through in the past year?

Gov. Whitmer: Well, you know, I ran on fixing the damn roads. I introduced a budget last year that would’ve done that. It was not an easy thing to do, lead with a big gas tax, but, you know, I’m tired of talking point and short-term fixes and phony fixes. I said I was going to do it, so I lead with a gas tax. It was dedicated to the roads, it was a user fee, it was, it hit all the hallmarks of what people say is an important thing to do when we raise revenues, and yet I got no traction with the legislature, and not even that, they wouldn’t even counter me with a thoughtful proposal. So, I didn’t think they were serious about fixing this problem, and I am, so I decided I would use my unilateral powers to ask the Transportation Commission to do a bond, and that’s what I did.

Jeff Cranson: So, when you talk about not countering with a serious proposal, like anything that was ever made public that they ever put out there, did you feel like you were close at some point, that maybe they were serious about offering you something in more informal talks?

Gov. Whitmer: I wish I could say yes, but no. You know, we had a lot of conversations. They said this was a priority, they said they would come up with a plan, and we were up on Mackinac Island in May, they said ‘we’ll come up with a plan in June,’ and then it was pushed off until July, and then it was pushed off until August, then they didn’t come back to work until September, and never was a real alternative put on the table, and it was really disappointing, frankly. I know that every day that goes by that we don’t invest more the problem gets more dangerous and more expensive, and so that’s why I said I’m not going to play games, I’m not going to wait for another year to go by, we have got to get started and this is the way that we can get started now and not having to wait on the legislature.

Jeff Cranson: So, I’m sensitive about the criticism that this is putting it off on our children and our grandchildren, because I think, doing what I’ve done for the last eight years, that letting our roads crumble and letting our bridges crumbles is passing on debt to our children and grandchildren.

Gov. Whitmer: Mhm.

Jeff Cranson: You know, I think about the things that our forefathers did for us, like built the Mackinac Bridge. What are we doing for the future? So, how do you answer that, to the people that talk about the debt?

Gov. Whitmer: Well, I think that’s right, you know, the generations before us made sacrifices to invest in things that they knew their grandkids would benefit from, whether it is the public education system or land-grant universities or the interstate highway system. These were investments that strengthened our country and our economy, and also that would benefit generations of Americans. We’ve seen the utter lack of investment for decades, actually, at this point, and that’s why we can’t pass the buck, we can’t pretend the problem’s not there, we have to be serious, and we have to start tackling it, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I do think about my kids and my - hopefully I have some grandkids one day - I think about them as the globe continues to heat, and we’ve got all these water problems which are making our road issues worse. I think about them as I watch the national debt increase. I think about them as our infrastructure crumbles. It’s just going to get more expensive and more dangerous for them, and that’s why, actually, this is the right thing to do for all of us today, and for them in the future.

Jeff Cranson: I’m glad you mentioned the water, because this has become a huge issue for the department, and for roads across the state, but especially in Benton Harbor, and the lakeshore, and the thumb area there are roads washing away because of this, and whatever the reason is, we know something’s going on with the climate, something’s going on with this high water, and it’s adding expense to what’s already a burden.

Gov. Whitmer: Well, there’re no question. I mean, I did the tour with you and the fabulous employees at MDOT and learned a lot. I wore a hard hat and got to hit the side of some bridges, and just in doing that you can hear where concrete is coming away from the metal framing of the bridge - or steel, I don’t know. See, I’m a little out of my comfort zone here, but-

Jeff Cranson: Well, it’s been a while since we did the bridge tours.

Gov. Whitmer: -Just by doing that you can tell water can be an incredibly dangerous thing, and it is invasive, and the problems are only getting worse because of how inundated we are, and the lack of freezing this year – actually, I see golfers out in January and December, and they’re thrilled about his weather, and I see alarm bells, I hear alarm bells going off, because nothing’s freezing and it means that there’s nowhere for all of this water to go.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, as a skier I’m not happy when I see golfers out in January.

Gov. Whitmer: I agree that industry is something I worry about too.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, so what is your long-term hope? I know that reporters asked you again today at the media roundtable and have been asking you about MPSERS and other options. What’s your long-term hope for the legislature to actually do something?

Gov. Whitmer: Well, I’d like them to get serious and counter me. I believe I put the best plan on the table last year, I really do. I know people aren’t thrilled about a gas tax. No one is. I’m not thrilled about a gas tax, but we have to fix this problem, and I’m going to do everything I can to do it right, and so it’s time for the legislature to get serious and come up with an alternative, and if they won’t then hopefully I’ve got a legislature next year, in the new session, that will.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah. So, when you talk about Michigan’s roads being among the worse, and the federal government hasn’t come to the rescue either, as you know, the federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and I don’t know what you can buy now for the same price that you could in 1993-

Gov. Whitmer: Not much.

Jeff Cranson: The highway trust fund’s broken and perpetually bailed out by the general fund at the federal level. So, are you going to mention investment when you give the State of the Union response next week?

Gov. Whitmer: I mean, how could I give a speech without talking about fixing the damn roads, Jeff?

[Both laugh]

Gov. Whitmer: Yeah, of course. I think that when I see my fellow governors who kind of bristled when they heard my tagline, fix the damn roads, now saying it boldly, I know that this is a problem unique to Michigan in terms of the magnitude of it, but not unique in the fact of it. Lots of states are confronting underinvested infrastructure. Governors on both sides of the aisle are asking for gas tax increases because the feds aren’t doing their part, and so we need people in Washington DC who prioritize infrastructure. Whether it is the water that’s coming into our homes from water infrastructure underneath the ground, or it is the roads we drive on, or it is the bridges we cross, or even the ability to connect online. All of these are critical infrastructure components that we need nationwide.

Jeff Cranson: So Greg Johnson, former Chief Operating Officer at MDOT, and Chief Engineer, who left the department a few years ago to go run the Maryland State Highways Department, spoke very passionately at the Transportation Commission meeting about his experience in Maryland with a road system about half the size of Michigan’s, yet they invest about twice as much.

Greg Johnson: First off, I would like to congratulate the Commission on taking this step, congratulate the Governor on having a bold vision. What other states are doing, as far as investing in their infrastructure is tremendous. I am seeing California, Texas, Florida, Ohio putting more money into their roadways. So, this is a positive step, I agree. This is not the final step. One other issue I want to address is that there is always the talk in the media, ‘well, MDOT doesn’t know how to build roads.’ Having ran Maryland’s State Highway Administration for year and a half and saw what they did - Michigan is so far ahead of other states in utilizing technology and making smart decisions. The only reason our system is behind is the money that is not being spent.

Jeff Cranson: And you hear that from other states all over the place. I don’t know, I feel - I’ve been at this for eight years, trying to educate the public about funding, and what we do, and why we’re in the situation we’re in, and yet people still don’t believe it somehow. They say, ‘that can’t be right because I pay what I pay at the pump, or I pay what I pay in registration.’ So, I guess we just keep at it.

Gov. Whitmer: Well, I think the magnitude of the problem is hard for people to get their heads around. I really think that that’s true. As I gave my presentations across the state, people stood up and applauded. I didn’t know how people would react to the gas tax, but once they saw what we were confronting as a state they got it, and they said ‘yeah, we expect this to be done and we expect we’re going to have to chip in.’ It’s better to chip in at the gas pump in gallon increments than to have to repair your car to the tune of $700 every year, and not just that, but the cost of your time and all the other inconveniences of car repair because our roads are falling apart. And so, I do think that is hard for people to understand how big the problem is, and what it means in other parts of our budget so long as we’re just try to address crises along the way. When we get smart, and we really plan, and we have a comprehensive way to really rebuild Michigan, everyone benefits.

Jeff Cranson: So, it’s kind of the Ev Dirksen thing: A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money, because people don’t grasp the gravity of the situation.

Gov. Whitmer: It’s true, you know, I have people ask me more often than not ‘can marijuana taxes fix the roads?’ You know, marijuana will probably bring in some substantial money into the state but $10 million, $100 million – that’s a drop in the bucket when your problem is $2.5 billion annually over 10 years.

Jeff Cranson: Exactly, yeah. Well thank you for taking the time to do this and explain it, especially for being so kind and understanding to the MDOT workers who take a lot of the abuse, and the brunt for the condition of the roads. So, I appreciate that.

Gov. Whitmer: Well, the MDOT workers are doing incredible work with very little support and very little resources, and but for the quality of our workforce I think it would be a lot tougher out there. I’ve got incredible confidence in the employees at MDOT and I’m inspired by our state employees, they’re the true public servants in this state.

Jeff Cranson: Thank you.

Jeff Cranson: Earlier you heard from the Transportation Commission meeting Thursday, when former MDOT COO Greg Johnson spoke. As we wind down, let’s hear another comment from the Transportation Commission meeting. This is Commission member and former three term mayor of Grand Rapids, George Heartwell.

Commissioner Heartwell: MDOT knows how to design and get roads built. So, why are our roads in the condition that they’re in today? Well, because, over my experience now with 4 Governors, MDOT has never had enough money to stay ahead of the natural deterioration of Michigan roads.

Jeff Cranson: Okay, thanks again for listening to this week’s edition of Talking Michigan Transportation, and I want to give a special thanks to Corey Petee who does the sound engineering for the podcast, and to Sara Martin of MDOT who does the show’s intro and closing.

Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Checkout show notes and more on Soundcloud, or by subscribing on Apple podcast.