In order to achieve the economic benefits discussed above, we need a bold new strategy that will give Michigan the highway network it will need for competing in the 21st Century. And it is clear that we are not investing sufficient funds to maintain the current system in Michigan, let alone provide for expansion to support economic development. In fact, Michigan spending on the overall capital program is dropping over the next five years, and only $28 million dollars is available for expansion projects that are critical to economic development. The need is especially clear to drivers in congested areas of southeast Michigan and the west Michigan coastal communities around Grand Rapids.
However, Michigan simply does not have the transportation fund money needed to address critical economic expansion issues. Historically, Michigan has led the nation in the quality of its highway network, and we should have a “transportation reliability” advantage over other large Midwest cities given our relatively weak growth in recent years. However, we have significant levels of congestion, and a number of other problems, because we have not invested enough in the transportation system. A major advantage we had over cities such as Chicago, Toronto and Cleveland has been reduced to the point where our highway network no longer provides an edge when competing for major corporate offices and factories.
In order to compete in both old manufacturing and new service economies of the future, we will need a first-rate transportation system that is anchored by a well-maintained and reliable highway network. We can and must “build our way” out of congestion and other capacity constraints. There is a real value to business and commuters in ending gridlock – in reducing congestion and providing more certainty in transportation times. Mass transit can play a role in alleviating highway demand, but the old “saws” about it “not being possible to build our way out of congestion” must be thrown aside.
Other states are starting aggressive programs to expand highway capacity in their growth markets, and Michigan must do the same. For instance, I-10 in Phoenix is being expanded from 14 lanes to 24, parts of I-5 and 405 in Orange County already have 26 lanes, and Atlanta is likely to begin work in 2008 on a widening of I-75 to 23 lanes. Many of the cities Michigan competes with for corporate location decisions have major traffic congestion problems. To some degree we still have a traffic congestion advantage, but it is nowhere near as big an advantage as it should be. Going forward we need to increase our transportation funding to make sure we have a clear-cut, competitive advantage in the reliability of our road network from both a freight and individual travel standpoint.
However more road taxes with “business as usual” approaches to spending the money is not good enough. Instead, we need a new strategy for how and from whom the money is raised; where and how it is spent to achieve maximum economic impact; and an increased role for automated toll lanes. As noted above, we must begin to build our way out of the looming road crisis — contrary to the popular mantra that says new roads simply beget more traffic. Well-operated bus systems, and some commuter rail services on existing rail lines, can play a role in providing mobility. But mass transit cannot make much of an impact on highway traffic levels. As such, we need a clear strategy for raising the money we need for highways and assuring that the money is spent for the purposes the public expects the money to be used for. We also must be careful not to increase the overall tax burden in the state, and we must be able to assure the public that the money is being spent efficiently and wisely.