I believe in the basics.
It’s government’s primary responsibility to make and sell all the products and services that private-sector business can’t or won’t. I believe the most basic of these responsibilities to be infrastructure. So, I want to take this column to talk about our infrastructure. Mostly because I’m trying to bore you all to death.
Let’s quickly define our infrastructure in the local context. To be simple, let’s call it our roads, bridges and all the pipes that run beneath our streets. To be even simpler, let’s just talk about our roads.
In Michigan, 40 percent of the major urban roads are in poor condition. To give some context, that puts our state at fifth-worst in the nation in a list including Washington, D.C. But why care? The simple answer is it costs you money. The average Michigan driver will spend $686 per year in added vehicle repair costs from poor road conditions. That’s the third-highest rate in the nation.
Now drive 50 miles south and notice that Ohio has better roads than we do. How is the worst state in the Union able to do road repair right? The simple truth is Ohio spends more on roads than we do — by just $60 per person per year.
While I’m not a statistician, I do understand that correlation may not mean causation. Surely a state’s economy is more complex than the health of its infrastructure. But let’s ask again: Why care? The complex answer is that better roads mean more trade, more trade means more business and more business means more jobs.
It seems as though when Democrats — full disclosure, I am one — want to demonstrate a positive effect from increased government spending, we point across the pond to Europe. When Michigan Republicans want to claim the opposite, they cite the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. It’s startling then that both the European Union and the Mackinac Center hold the same to be true: Investment in infrastructure grows the economy, and the return on investment is huge.
Better roads decrease the cost of transportation for everyone. That means a better bottom line for companies operating in Michigan. Those companies grow and hire more. And specialized manufacturers and service providers thrive in that economic environment. The effect is so evident that the return on investment can be as large a 0.24- percent growth in the economy per 1-percent increase in transportation spending. In Michigan, that would mean almost $450 million in economic growth for every $10 million invested in our transportation system.
But despite everyone’s advice, the majority of our state’s legislators in Lansing disagree; Ann Arbor’s delegation is not among them. The result of this disinvestment in our basics is too many broken roads and crumbling bridges. Michigan’s general-fund revenues are nearly the same size they were 15 years ago — in real dollars, not adjusted for inflation. I think a lot of bad politicians are proud of that fact. But good public servants would only take pride in that fact if their state were healthy and wealthy. Seemingly, ours is neither.
The blunt truth is, when it comes to our roads, Lansing has failed the people of Michigan. Now it’s up to local governments, from progressive Ann Arbor to conservative Grand Rapids, to clean up the mess — a mess that can be measured in flat tires, decreased business and lost jobs.
Now, these are the fixes we need today. However, I challenge us to expand our understanding of infrastructure from one that gives singular priority to the car to one that knows the only solutions to a city’s needs will take the walker, biker, bus rider and rail user into account. I challenge us to understand that the car cannot and should not be the future of the American city.
But if you can’t trust your government to get the basics right, how can you trust them to tackle the exceptional?
In Ann Arbor, we want to tackle the exceptional. So let’s ceaselessly strive to get the basics right. Let’s ensure our streets are maintained and safe, let’s clean up our customer service, and let’s pick up recycling and plow snow on time, every time.
If I can be of any help, when it comes to the basics or the exceptional, feel free to reach out.
Zachary Ackerman is an LSA senior and the Democratic Nominee (Ward 3) for Ann Arbor City Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.