When President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on November 15 last year, he guaranteed that nearly $8 billion would be injected into Michigan to rebuild roads and the bridges that every resident knows are in dire need of repair.
Along with the governor’s increased investment in infrastructure, it looks like we’re in a new golden age of road building, with funding finally available to turn potholes into pavement and dilapidation into renovation.
Unfortunately, those who see this new funding as a “quick fix” couldn’t be more wrong. It is true that this new funding will help rebuild many Michigan roads and bridges. It will put Michigan’s skilled trades professionals, like the more than 14,000 highly trained members of Operating Engineers 324, to work.
This will benefit our economies, our families, our cars and our trucks. But what it won’t do is fix the problems that got us here, and the future actually seems more problematic than the past.
For decades, the state of Michigan has played sleight of hand with the funding needed to repair and maintain our roads and bridges. Time and time again, Michigan legislatures have used accounting tricks to avoid tackling the issue of infrastructure funding head-on. Money that should go to roads goes to schools. The money that should go to schools is used for something else. During this time, necessary projects and works have not been funded.
It is this lack of direct investment that has led to our current situation. Roads had to be patched rather than replaced, and bridges stripped rather than rebuilt. Each year, our infrastructure has deteriorated while the cost of bringing it up to an acceptable level has increased. The past two years have brought a welcome reinvestment in our roads at both the state and federal levels, but it is not enough.
The damage wasn’t just to our shocks and struts. The vital work of maintaining and building infrastructure requires a skilled workforce – a workforce that can only be developed when there is enough work to do and the funding to do it. Where we have failed to maintain our roads and bridges, we have also failed to maintain our skilled workforce, often losing these professionals to other states (where infrastructure investments are better funded) .
This includes the next generation workforce. When we focus on sustaining infrastructure with investments, we empower the next generation workforce to train, gain skills, and pursue rewarding careers doing the work that is needed. Today’s labor concerns are a direct reflection of our failure to meet this need in the past. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.
In designing a new infrastructure financing model, we must also consider new options. The massive U.S. push toward electric vehicles offers a glimpse of a future where gas mileage is lower but the need for roads and bridges is undiminished. Electric vehicles need quality driving surfaces just like traditional vehicles, but without the fuel we currently rely on for road money.
We must be proactive, creative and decisive to ensure that our roads and bridges are repaired and maintained to the level we need.
Here we have the opportunity to reverse course. The federal infrastructure bill and state bail gave us enough money to spend the next few years fixing as much damage as possible. It is imperative that we spend this time thinking about and putting in place a new funding model, so that the work does not stop when these current funds are exhausted.
We all know and understand the importance of quality roads — to our communities and our economy. It’s time to design a sustainable funding model as strong as the roads we hope to travel.
Douglas Stockwell is the business manager of the Operating Engineers 324 union.