Pothole season has opened a window of opportunity to talk about transportation funding. But the conversation, led by legislators and the media, has stagnated around fixing roads for drivers. This focus belies the true problem: Michigan lacks a complete transportation system accessible and equitable to all users.
“As the snow piles up, drivers in my district and throughout our state are already having to drive defensively to avoid potholes, some seemingly the size of craters on the moon,” State Representative Thomas Stallworth (D-Detroit) said recently. Director Kirk Steudle briefed lawmakers on what could be “one of the biggest pavement breakups of our lifetime” by referencing a Lansing State Journal article on potholes and poor driving conditions. Media reports have focused on costs to drivers and potholes’ effects on vehicles. Michigan’s roads need to be fixed, but limiting dialogue to improving pavement between the curbs fails to capture the breadth of the state’s transportation needs.
Trans4M member John LaMacchia of the Michigan Municipal League offered a more inclusive perspective to lawmakers when he said that Michigan is at a “designable moment” with our transportation infrastructure. We can stick to repairing roads and maintaining our current system that favors single-occupant vehicles. Alternatively, we can act with a greater vision and create a transportation system that creates attractive downtowns, provides economic opportunities, and accommodates all users including non-motorized users, pedestrians, individuals with disabilities, and transit-dependent riders.
Establishing Michigan as a leader in livable and vibrant communities remains one of our governor’s top priorities. What do these communities almost always have in common? Appreciable pedestrian infrastructure and significant public transit options. Complete Streets, passenger rail, bus-rapid transit, and improving existing public transportation options have largely been absent in recent transportation talks amid the commotion about potholes. But while drivers express annoyance with bumpy roads, some Michigan residents are losing jobs due to inadequate public transportation services, while others risk serious injury or death making necessary trips to work, grocery stores, and medical appointments on roads not built for pedestrians, bicyclists, and wheelchair users.
Fixing road damage caused by winter weather is a pressing issue, one that merits an immediate fix. The $100 million to bail out local road agencies proposed by state senators Geoff Hansen (R-Hart) and John Pappageorge (R-Troy) is a necessary move. But even after road agencies patch up the holes, roads will be just as (if not more) susceptible to pavement breakup next winter, and non-motorized road users and transit-dependent riders will continue to face the same transportation challenges wrought by a system that favors the personal automobile. As transportation funding conversations moves forward and toward a complete funding package, dialogue needs to extend beyond roads and encompass the needs of all users.
Written by: Jeff Prygoski, Fellow, Transportation for Michigan