Transportation funding crossroads approaches

A good transportation system is essential to the lives of the people of Michigan. It’s how we get the kids to school, how we get Grandma to the doctor, and how many of us get ourselves to work each day.

But it’s even more essential to our economy. From iron ore to pulpwood logs, from cereal to pickup trucks, from office furniture to tart cherries, transportation helps us ship Michigan products and produce to markets here, across the U.S., and all over the world. And it allows tourists from other states and other countries to visit Michigan in winter or in summer, to experience Pure Michigan’s beaches, golf courses, apple orchards or snowmobile trails.

My vision for Michigan’s transportation system is a safe, robust network that offers a variety of transportation choices. A modern transportation system that effectively and efficiently moves people and goods wherever they need to go.

It’s no secret that our transportation system has been underfunded for many years. We continue to work with state Legislators to address that problem. We’ve made some progress there and I hope we’ll make more. But in the meantime we at the Michigan Department of Transportation have been doing everything in our power to make the best use of the resources we have.

MDOT constantly looks for ways to save money. Over the past five years, through cost saving measures like refinancing bonds, making better use of technology, recycling construction material and increasing energy efficiency, the department has saved an average of $63 million each year.

And we’re on the cusp of even greater savings. Last year, the department tested a pilot project that we’ve been calling “e-construction.” E-construction uses the latest technology – the iPhones, iBooks and iPads you probably use at home – to go “paperless.”

We’ve worked with private sector construction contractors to use digital signatures, edit construction plans on a shared computer network, and send critical photos from the job sites to technical experts so they don’t have to spend the whole day traveling just to offer their advice. Just one of the pilot projects we undertook last year saved $185,000 – for MDOT and its private sector contractors – eliminating 170,000 pieces of paper and 150,000 days of mail time.

MDOT’s now rolling E-construction rapidly out to other projects and other programs. We’re the first state department of transportation in the country to use this technology in such innovative ways, and so broadly and it has the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars over time.

That’s a lot of money, but unfortunately it’s still not enough to address the cost to repair and rebuild 10,000 miles of highways and bridges that have been underfunded for so many years. It’s not enough to turn our community main streets into the kind of “complete streets” that contribute to place-making that spurs new economic growth. It’s not enough to modernize aging freeways that date back as far as World War II.

And modernizing our freeways is something we must do to stay competitive, because the rest of the world is modernizing around us, whether we choose to keep pace or not. MDOT has worked with the big three automakers and the Federal Highway Administration to research a system of interconnected vehicles and roadways, as well as vehicles that drive themselves.These types of vehicles offer incredible benefits for driver safety, and as the population ages, it will be vitally important for continued individual mobility to have these systems in place.

I mentioned earlier that some of our highways date back as far as World War II. When the U.S. entered that war, Michigan mobilized its industry and its highly skilled workforce and quickly became known as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” We showed the country how to get things done, in a very short amount of time.

Michigan can do that again, by investing in a modern, multi-modal transportation system that supports and furthers the reinvention of our economy. The kind of ground-breaking change that MDOT has seen as a result of new technology and new techniques offers huge promise for the future of our transportation system. To make this vision a reality will take bold steps, brave action, and ingenuity.

Michigan has shown its willingness to take on that kind of monumental change in the past. And we can do it again, if we’re willing to keep moving forward.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kirk Steudle has served as Michigan’s State Transportation Director since 2006.