July – August 2020 Commentary

Illustration of person using map
Illustration by James Yang

Transportation – On The Road

In summer 2021, Macomb County will embark on a $217-million project to reconstruct a nine-mile stretch of Mound Road, from I-696 to M-59, which runs through the cities of Warren and Sterling Heights. While funding for such large-scale projects is challenging — the county secured a vital federal grant in 2018 — the fact is it’s also crucial to have the vigilance to identify mistakes before they occur. 

July August 2020 By the NumbersThe last reconstruction of what is one of Michigan’s vital industrial and commuter corridors occurred more than 30 years ago, which surpasses the average roadway expectancy of 25 years. Due to the road’s aged condition, Macomb County officials say they’re spending $3 million to $4 million annually on roadway maintenance and repairs. Once the Mound Road reconstruction project is completed in 2024, those repair costs can be shifted to other transportation or county priorities.

When finished, the new roadway will greatly improve efficiency. The original road construction commenced in the early 1940s, when Chrysler Corp. built the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, a vast manufacturing complex at Mound and 12 Mile roads that produced tanks to support the Allied Forces during World War II. Since then, the corridor has become a major hub for the automotive, defense, aerospace, and advanced production industries.

According to data from the Macomb County Department of Roads, more than 47,000 people are employed along Mound Road. Those jobs support an additional 71,100 occupations in the county, while another 101,000 jobs in Michigan are tied to the corridor’s business activity. Last year, the county hired HNTB, a large infrastructure solutions firm in Seattle, to manage the project. The company has an office in Sterling Heights.

When the project was first discussed in 2016, county officials partnered with Warren and Sterling Heights (though they weren’t required to), in coordination with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, and the Federal Highway Administration. The local partnership helped identify the need to add a fourth lane along both sides of the corridor, from 17 Mile to M-59. The effort, local officials say, will reduce rush hour traffic.         

In addition to improving traffic flow, the new corridor will offer better lighting, landscaping, signage, signals, pedestrian access, transit stops, a non-motorized multi-use pathway, and Intelligent Transportations Systems that will support emerging mobility features. During a public meeting earlier this year, county officials said they would strive to streamline the construction process. 

Such scrutiny will help alleviate potential problems. Case in point: MDOT announced in late November that part of a half-mile section and areas at two exit ramps of the ongoing reconstruction of I-75 in Oakland County must be replaced. The reason? A contractor used the wrong concrete mix. MDOT said the replacement will be completed by the end of 2020, when paving for the I-75 project is expected to be completed.

I could run any damn machine in the place (Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant).

— K.T. Keller, President, Chrysler Corp.

The mistake was realized when MDOT inspectors took samples of the concrete after it had cured. The area in question will be replaced by the contractor at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Still, what’s unaccounted for is the traffic delays that will occur as the substandard material is removed and new concrete is poured. Rather than wait until concrete cures to take samples, MDOT inspectors should consider testing the cement solution at its source. By catching potential issues earlier, MDOT would spare working commuters, emergency personnel, and distribution carriers from sitting in added traffic and give them more time to complete their jobs.

Health Care – Nursing Home Pandemic

In a tale of two states, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer likely put seniors in serious danger by issuing and extending an executive order that requires most nursing homes to accept patients diagnosed with COVID-19. The order puts other nursing home residents, who are especially susceptible to being infected with the virus, in harm’s way. 

Whitmer’s directive required long-term care facilities with 20 percent or higher vacancy to accept infected patients. Compounding the problem: the Whitmer administration, as of early June, had yet to report how many nursing home residents died from COVID-19.

By contrast, in mid-March, Florida officials identified the potential for the virus to spread through its nursing homes. Led by the Florida Department of Health, officials set aside dedicated facilities away from nursing homes for elderly COVID-19 patients as they were discharged from hospitals. Overall, Florida has a much higher number of seniors than most other states, including Michigan.

According to statista.com, as of early June, Michigan had an overall COVID-19 death rate of 52 per 100,000 people. Florida had a death rate of 10 people per 100,000 during the same time frame. Other states with policies similar to Michigan also had higher death rates (150 in New York and 125 in New Jersey). To improve outcomes, state officials should find out quickly how nursing homes have been impacted by the virus, as the city of Detroit reports that 84 percent of the deaths caused by COVID-19 occurred among people 60 years or older.

Robotics – Skilled Automation

Companies that utilize robots to perform repetitive tasks are sometimes attacked for eliminating work traditionally done by laborers. Yet are jobs that require someone to do the same thing over and over again aspirational? Wouldn’t it be better if assemblers were retained and retrained to work with robots, so they could then develop faster production cycles and new products and features?

Consider a new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that shows how businesses that add manufacturing robots hire more employees. One reason is that, over time, robots reduce costs. With more resources on hand, manufacturers that automate are more apt to enter new markets, buy out a competitor, or expand product lines.     

According to the MIT study, from 2010 to 2015, companies that increased the use of robots by 20 percentage points saw a 3.2-percent drop in employment, but at the same time overall employee hours rose 10.9 percent, while wages were driven upward. In turn, automated firms became more productive and profitable. Their market share also grew.

Over the same period, the study showed that for companies with few, if any, robots, employment fell 2.5 percent for every 10-percentage-point boost in automation by a competitor. What’s more, similar businesses with fewer robots saw lower margins and higher costs, and couldn’t grow as rapidly. The study highlights that robots aren’t job-killers; rather, they’re an opportunity for employers and workers to learn and pass on new skills.