Bridge Magazine Guest Commentary by Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Transportation and Infrastructure Association

Many times every day in Michigan, we drink and cook with water from our taps, flush our toilets and drive past rivers, lakes and beaches, assuming our state has made the investments necessary to maintain our infrastructure.

That assumption would be wrong.

In fact, the infrastructure in Michigan – and many states – is alarmingly old and in desperate need of repairs, upgrades or total replacement. Michigan’s unmet infrastructure needs are estimated to be in the billions of dollars because the state, for generations, has simply failed to adequately maintain our drinking water systems, sewers, wastewater treatment plants, dams, and roads and bridges.

In the coming months, Michigan business and government leaders will be making a detailed assessment of the state of our infrastructure so we better understand the extent of the problem and solutions. This is serious, people. As we have seen first-hand, when infrastructure fails, it poses serious threats to public health and public safety, and can devastate an entire local economy.

A recent report prepared by Public Sector Consultants provides an alarming first look at the challenge ahead. The PSC study, prepared for the Michigan Transportation & Infrastructure Association and released in April, shows that investments statewide to ensure clean drinking water and wastewater treatments for residents and businesses are falling short by hundreds of millions of dollars of what is needed each year. The report identified significant gaps in infrastructure investments across the state:

  • Michigan is underinvesting in its drinking water infrastructure by $284 million to $563 million a year. Between 2004 and 2013, average annual investments in drinking water infrastructure totaled $447 million, compared to an annual need of $731 million to $1.01 billion. Why is so much needed? Because many drinking water systems were built decades and decades ago. They age and wear out, just like the roofs on our homes, our driveways, our furnaces and hot water heaters. This estimate doesn’t take into account the additional investment needed to restore clean drinking water for Flint, where aging lead pipes installed generations ago contaminated the drinking water.
  • Stormwater and wastewater estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggest Michigan’s investment need totals about $2.14 billion, although that figure does not adequately reflect anticipated long-term costs, due to significant underreporting. Census data show that, between 2004 and 2013, Michigan spent an average of $691 million each year on wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

Communities across Michigan face the challenge of maintaining and updating infrastructure, with most drinking and wastewater systems built between 50 and 100 years ago. In older cities, systems can date back to the 1800s.

To many residents, the state’s infrastructure crisis is below ground and invisible. However, recent natural and man-made crises underscore serious deficiencies in Michigan’s infrastructure, including:

  • The Flint water crisis, which is directly traced to the city’s old lead water lines.
  • Flooding in 2014 from heavy rains that forced shutdowns of five freeways and roads throughout Metro Detroit and southeast Michigan.
  • A statewide power outage in 2003 that shut down major public water systems.

In the coming months and years, Michigan’s unmet infrastructure needs will be the subject of significant public examination and debate. Because the scope of the needs is simply enormous, the solutions will be extensive and expensive. But the rewards will be public health, public safety, jobs and a solid foundation for Michigan’s economy and future.

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