Fragile and ConstrainedApril 12, 2022
By John Gallagher
To weigh the importance of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to keep the American economy humming, look no further than the trucker blockade that shut the Ambassador Bridge for several days in February.
Within days of the first stoppages, auto plants in the U.S. and Canada began to idle shifts. Patrick Anderson, president and chief executive officer of East Lansingbased Anderson Economic Group estimated lost wages and other costs to the auto industry reached about $300 million.
Sandy K. Baruah, president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber, sees the episode as emblematic of how America has neglected its infrastructure for far too long.
“Our infrastructure is so fragile, so constrained, that a bunch of malcontent truckers can bring the North American supply chain literally to a screeching halt,” he said.
BETTER ‘HYGIENE INFRASTRUCTURE’ A MUST
Baruah uses the term “hygiene infrastructure” to capture how America needs to do much better at the basics of maintaining roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, and more. With businesses increasingly running on “just in time” operations, the nation’s deteriorating roads, bridges, ports, and air and rail facilities all pose threats to production and profitability. Fixing the “damn roads,” a recent mantra in Michigan’s political discourse, is just one piece of the puzzle.
Pointing to concerns over lead water pipes in many places to sinkholes in Macomb County to the estimated 50,000 bridges in the U.S. that need serious maintenance, Baruah said, “These are all examples of neglecting hygiene infrastructure investments over the years. Just like maintaining your house. The less you spend on maintenance, the more you’re going to spend in the end on big projects.”
In some ways, other nations are moving much faster to embrace their infrastructure needs and solutions. China and Europe have invested in high-speed rail. And when Michigan’s legislators refused to pay for a new border crossing, Canada agreed to pay the entire upfront costs of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will add six lanes of capacity and direct links to expressways on both sides of the border when it opens in 2024.
As Roy Norton, Canada’s representative in Detroit from 2010 to 2014, told Crain’s Detroit Business recently, “It was worth $5 billion to us to ensure” the continued movement of goods across the busiest trade corridor between the two nations.
INVESTMENT NEEDED IN UPGRADES OF THE FUTURE
But maintaining our roads and bridges is only a beginning step, said Lisa Lunsford, chief executive officer and founder, Global Strategic Supply Solutions and chair of the board of MICHauto, a statewide initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber.
For Michigan to retain its leading position in the mobility marketplace, the state needs to invest more in the transportation upgrades of the future, she said.
That means investments in “smart” roads that communicate with vehicles about hazards. It means bringing to market not just electric vehicles, but entire systems automated to move people and goods in the cleanest, safest, most efficient ways.
MICHIGAN HAS CATCHING UP TO DO
Like Baruah, Lunsford believes Michigan has a long way to go to stay ahead of rivals.
“I’m constantly asking, are we prepared?” she said. “Are we doing enough to make sure that Michigan remains relevant in this mobility space? I think we haven’t done enough to expand our thinking on it. We’re always thinking about today without a thought of tomorrow.”
Baruah echoes that. “Compared to what we need as the home of mobility, the state that’s supposed to own mobility, we need to be an aggressive early adopter in all of these technologies and we’re not,” Baruah said.
So patching potholes is the least of it. Michigan’s infrastructure needs stretch from the border with Canada to future technologies just now coming into view. As Lunsford and Baruah said, Michigan has a lot of catching up to do.•
John Gallagher is a freelance writer and author in Detroit, and formerly of the Detroit Free Press.