Susan J. Demas: The GOP finally has an infrastructure plan: Sell off Michigan for parts

June 13, 2019 5:55 am

Blue Water Bridge via Canva

In what was, perhaps, the most perfect Onion story ever written, the city of Detroit was sold at auction to “bulk scrap dealers and smelting foundries” back in 2006.

“Detroit Sold For Scrap” chronicles how the Renaissance Center netted $4,000 and the former Detroit Museum of African-American History fetched a whopping $135.

“This is what’s best for Detroit,” Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick said. “We must act now, while we can still get a little something for it.”

The article from the site that bills itself as “America’s Finest News Source,” was, of course, parody. But 13 years later, it seems as though it inspired Michigan Republicans’ infrastructure plan — and I use the term “plan” here extremely loosely.

Back in March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed a 45-cent gas tax increase to generate $2.5 billion each year to fix Michigan’s disastrous roads and bridges.

The Onion, “America’s Finest News Source”

Why that much? That’s what happens when you neglect problems, as Michigan has done for decades, particularly with roads and schools. Experts agree that $2 to $3 billion annually is needed to ensure that motorists no longer have to play pothole roulette on major thoroughfares.

And while the gas tax may not be popular, Whitmer’s approval rating in the latest Detroit News poll is 51% with only 24% disapproving — numbers Michigan governors don’t typically see. So the Democrat must be doing something right.

Republicans who run the Legislature squealed and squealed about her proposal — even though many voted for GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2015 tax hike as part of his pitiful roads deal that no one thought would fix the problem.

And it hasn’t.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

After months of procrastinating like the kid who slinks down in his chair at the back of the class, Republicans popped a plan last week in a state House committee that would raise $542 million in fiscal year 2020 and $830 million the following year. I wasn’t a math major, but I do know that’s quite a bit less than $2.5 billion.

Here’s my favorite part. Republicans also threw in budget language for a plan due March 1 to solicit proposals for the sale “of the state’s interest in the Blue Water Bridge,” among other state assets. The privatization-happy GOP has pushed harebrained schemes like this for years. 

The bridge, which is jointly owned by Michigan and Canada, is a critical trade crossing between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario. We still owe roughly $90 million on it.

Amid the blowback, House Appropriations Committee Chair Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) quickly said this is not the GOP’s final roads plan, so we’re still left waiting with bated breath.

Now Republicans still somehow claim to be fiscal conservatives, even though their conquering hero, President Donald Trump, has exploded the national debt to $22 trillion.

But this has always been a myth.

Take Indiana, our solidly red neighbor to the south, which sold off a toll road for $3.8 billion in 2006 (coincidentally, the same year as the above-mentioned Onion article). The road promptly lost $260 million the next year and the deal finally had to be bailed out by Australian investors to the tune of $5.7 billion.

If you’ve traveled through the Hoosier State enroute to Chicago lately, you’ve probably noticed that tolls have skyrocketed.

Talk about a bad deal that left people holding the bag.

Ambassador Bridge | Ken Coleman

Of course, Michiganders already have some experience with a bridge owned by a private company. The 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge (whose construction auspiciously ended just after the 1929 stock market crash) is the property of the Moroun* family, long known for their generosity toward political candidates.

They’ve long wanted to twin the bridge, but lost a series of court battles, even though their many friends in the Legislature did their best to stop a second public span from being built. Finally, Snyder inked a deal with Canada for the Gordie Howe International Bridge — which likely is his finest legacy.

Canada, by the way, is footing the entire $4.4 billion bill.

But wait. It gets better.

In a move that did not exactly come as a shock to those of us who covered state government in the pre-Snyder era, House Republicans this week slipped in more boilerplate language in the transportation budget bill. This would bar the state from spending any taxpayer money on the new bridge for land acquisitions — even though the Canadian government is paying us back.

House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Matt Maddock (R-Milford), whose political action committee just happened to receive a $5,000 injection in April from the Morouns, protested folks were “making a mountain out of a molehill.” But these sly budget language changes have been the Morouns’ stock-and-trade for fighting a second span (back when it was known last decade as the Detroit River International Crossing, or, somewhat unfortunately, DRIC).

Snyder’s former lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, wasn’t buying it, either. He said the language “simply wouldn’t allow the project to continue” and sends a terrible message to Canada, which “has been absolutely 100% faithful to every single thing they said.”

So there you have it. Republicans, so far, have thrown together an infrastructure plan that raises one-fifth of what’s needed for roads this year, floated the idea of selling an international bridge and made moves to stop building another one.

Onion scribes couldn’t have written this better if they tried.

*This column has been updated with the correct spelling of Moroun.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.