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Major surgery, not band aids, needed to fix Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure

Mike Nystrom

Governor Snyder’s recently released 21st Century Infrastructure Commission’s report confirmed, in spades, what many of us already knew; Michigan’s transportation, water, energy and communications infrastructure is in very bad shape.  The report validated and underscored Michigan’s “D” infrastructure grade on the 2009 American Society of Civil Engineers’ report card—one of the lowest grades among states evaluated.  

Kirk Heinze recently talked to Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, who served on the infrastructure commission.  His association members are the contractors who “are attempting to rebuild Michigan’s infrastructure—water lines, sewer lines, roads, bridges, dams—and I say attempting because we have been putting on band aids when what we need is major surgery.”

Part of the problem, Nystrom says, is that while we all notice bad roads and crumbling bridges, we don’t often think about what’s out of sight, underground. 

“We don’t tend to notice underground infrastructure problems unless there is a sink hole in our neighborhood or when our drinking water is tainted in some way,” he says.  “That is when we tend to react and realize we have problems.”

Nystrom admits that the price tag for fixing Michigan’s problems is daunting.  The commission report estimates an annual investment gap of $4 billion over two decades. 

“We can’t just throw money at the problem, and I don’t want folks to think all of that money will come from one source,” he says.  “We are not going to see some huge state income tax or sales tax increase.” 

“We certainly have to look to the federal government for help, and we have to reprioritize our spending focus at the state level,” Nystrom says.

According to Nystrom, Michigan’s 6.4 percent capital spending on infrastructure is well below the 10.2 percent national average and even further below the regional average.    That has to change. 

“But I don’t want to leave the impression that it is all gloom and doom,” he says.  “Many municipalities across the state are already taking the right steps to ensure a strong infrastructure for the next generation—just like our grandparents did in the 1940s and 50s.” 

Public engagement and support for fixing Michigan’s infrastructure problems must begin with more education and greater understanding, Nystrom believes.  To that end, the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association has launched the FixMIState campaign designed to educate the public on the health and safety implications of infrastructure, as well as the important economic dimensions. 

“You need the public engaged; once people fully understand the problem, they tend to support solutions.” 

Greening of the Great Lakes airs inside MSU Today Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on AM 870.

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