GOP backs down on Gordie Howe Bridge, House springs transportation budget

By: - June 13, 2019 4:55 pm

Construction start event, Oct. 5, 2018 | Pont International Gordie Howe International Bridge photo

Michigan’s GOP-led House on Thursday passed a $5.4 billion fiscal year 2020 transportation budget proposal that unlocks new money for road repairs that has previously gone toward schools and roads. The proposal marks a 7.8% increase over funding for last year.

The bill is vastly different than the infrastructure plan put forth in March by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who called for a 45-cent gas tax increase to raise $2.5 billion for roads.

House Bill 4246, sponsored by state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), also includes amendments that instruct the state Department of Transportation (MDOT) to again explore toll roads. And the legislation includes softened language that, prior to the amendment, would have effectively blocked the state from spending money on the under-construction Gordie Howe International Bridge.

The amendments were sponsored by state Reps. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton Twp.) and Maddock, respectively. The legislation passed along a party-line vote of 57-52.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

One House Democrat assailed the budget bill as being akin to a “garage sale” that will fail to provide long-term solutions to fix Michigan’s ailing roads and bridges.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, say the budget brings about $850 million over two years in new road funding, done in part by untangling the state’s complex gas tax mechanism. As the Advance has previously reported, about one-third of the taxes paid at the pump are used for education and local government funding.  

The House GOP plan redirects the state sales tax that has historically gone toward schools and local governments toward roads. Republican leaders say those entities will be held harmless by other tax shifts, as well as “responsible” cuts elsewhere in the budget.

“The people expect that when they pay at the pump, every penny that they pay is a penny that is going to go toward roads,” said state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering). “That is what we just accomplished with this budget while funding our roads at a record level without raising taxes one cent. This was a responsible budget.”

Whitmer has said she’s only open to other “real” solutions that “fix the damn roads.” When asked at a Juneteenth event on Thursday evening if the House-passed bill is a real solution, the governor didn’t mince words.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Affirmations in Ferndale, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

“No,” she said.

Chatfield and House Appropriations Chair Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) said they expect further road funding negotiations with the governor and the GOP-led state Senate as the summer progresses.

The House proposal also instructs MDOT to explore toll roads, which have generally been viewed as challenging for the state due to the existing design of Michigan’s freeways. An MDOT spokesman said that the issue of toll roads are “ultimately a public policy decision for elected officials, but we are fine with the amendment.”

The amended bill also softens controversial language that was included in a previous draft on Wednesday. The proposal that cleared the House Appropriations Committee would have restricted MDOT from spending any taxpayer money on the construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Southwest Detroit, despite the state being reimbursed by Canada.

Legislation passed on Thursday removes that language and mandates MDOT provide detailed monthly reimbursement reports to several elected officials in an effort to bring “a little more transparency and accountability,” Hernandez said.

Meanwhile, the budget also instructs MDOT to begin developing possible sale proposals for several state-owned assets like the Blue Water Bridge crossing that connects Port Huron to Sarnia, Ontario, as well as welcome centers and state-owned airports.

“The wording that you see in the budget are simply ways for us to understand, ‘Is there value in our assets, is there interest in them?’” Hernandez said. “I don’t believe there’s any decisions that will be made at this point. It’s a way for us to some fact-finding and see what the market is at this point.”

Advance editor Susan J. Demas noted that the proposals to sell state assets are akin to a 2006 satire article in The Onion.

Brian Elder

State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) appeared to feel the same way.

“Let’s not forget about the garage sale,” Elder said during a floor speech. “You need a bridge? We got one for sale. Who wants an airport, or a rail line, or my personal favorite, a welcome center. Coming soon, a great big sign that says, ‘Welcome to Michigan. It costs a dollar to pee at the rest stop.’”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.