September – October 2021 Commentary

Watch the little things; a small leak will sink a great ship. – Benjamin Franklin
Illustration by James Yang
Illustration by James Yang

Heavy rains and the resulting sewer backups this summer and in recent years have exposed a lack of government leadership and funding in the region’s water and wastewater infrastructure. According to a June report from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the seven-county region received lackluster marks across every water-related system.

Consider the following infrastructure grades: drinking water (D), solid waste (C+), wastewater (C), stormwater (D-), and dams (C-). Taking it a step further, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer staked nearly her entire election campaign on “fixing the damn roads,” but as she reaches the end of her third year in office, the SEMCOG report leaves much to be desired: bridges (C-) and roads (D-).

graph displaying informationFor someone who touts her close connection to President Joe Biden, Whitmer has yet to reverse a decades-long decline in federal water infrastructure investment that today accounts for around 10 percent of funding, down from 60 percent in the 1970s. Give credit to Whitmer for recognizing the challenges, but SEMCOG and other institutions have been highlighting the lack of investment for decades.

Compounding the problem is poor decision-making on water-related infrastructure. Consider Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel ordered a private dam operator to raise the level of water in surrounding lakes in Gladwin and Midland counties. A few weeks later, in May 2019, a heavy rain breached the dams, destroying around 2,500 homes and businesses. Damages are estimated at $200 million.

For a state that markets its direct access to 21 percent of the world’s freshwater supply, our infrastructure should be among the best in the world. Unfortunately, over the past 40 years state and local leaders have failed to keep up with rising demand — SEMCOG reports there is a $4 billion annual investment gap for roads, bridges, airports, and more. The price tag for annual water and sewer needs lags by $800 million a year.

Drawing more federal investment is one way to close the water equipment gap, and a concerted effort by the governor and her team to solicit added funding in Washington, D.C., would help move the needle in a positive direction. State and local tax hikes also must be examined. There’s plenty of stimulus money that could be used to address long-term infrastructure upgrades, as well.

Such improvements will limit what transpired in late June when torrential rains hit metro Detroit. In the aftermath of the storm, it came out the Great Lakes Water Authority failed to ensure all its pumping stations, especially those in low-lying areas, were operational. The organization also reported multiple problems at the Conner Creek and Freud pumping stations, both in Detroit.

While the authority states it will conduct an independent investigation, it’s clear the region needs more pumps and generators. “The bottom line is all pumps need to be operational, and they need full backup power,” Candice Miller, public works commissioner in Macomb County, said following the June 25 storm. “They need to be fully staffed during severe rain events.”

Technology – Setting a Standard

Electric vehicles face multiple challenges before they reach mainstream status. Apart from bringing charging times in line with filling a gasoline tank, and extending battery range and adding thousands more charging stations, the fledgling EV industry is being held back by too many mobile apps that operate independently. 

Right now, each charging network offers its own mobile app. If a driver routinely accesses the same charging station, say at work, there are few problems. But consider traveling in an electric vehicle over hundreds of miles. Apart from waiting what could be hours for a battery to recharge, drivers must download an app for each new charging station operator they encounter. If an app can’t be downloaded or doesn’t operate properly, the charging station is useless.

Another challenge with charging stations is some service providers require customers to pay up front for their electricity, but if the credit in an account isn’t all used, it may be difficult to get the money back — the operator won’t refund the money, and the unused funds sit in an account until needed. Rather than stoke the need for a credit monetizing app, digital charging assistants should be standardized.

As the industry seeks to meet the glowing utopia promised by automakers, politicians, and environmentalists, it will take years before EVs catch on. Until more charging stations are built and are fully integrated with a standard mobile app, EV drivers will be left wondering if the next charging station they encounter is a friend or a foe.

Housing – Eviction Notice

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, Congress extended billions of dollars in relief to all rental housing and tenants who earned less than $99,000 per year ($198,000 for couples), and who claimed they had lost income due to the virus. As the eviction moratorium played out through last December, it was extended a month. The incoming Biden administration added three more extensions, through July 31 (a partial 60-day extension has since been added).

While many media reports leading up to the last deadline were filled with end-of-the-world scenarios of riots and mayhem in early August, the end of the eviction ban didn’t live up to all the hype. One reason has to do with the fact that of the $46 billion earmarked for rental assistance, $3 billion was actually allocated.

Another factor has to do with state and local bureaucracy. As affected renters tried to access the funds, they were faced with a maze of governmental hoops to jump through. As we learned, rather than wait for the government to provide aid, many tenants and landlords worked together to develop a remedy to the crisis.

While the federal government should be commended for aiding those in need, lawmakers also must realize that every catastrophe has an end. If some politicians had their way, the eviction ban would last well into the future. As Americans proved through one of the greatest tragedies in our time, a welfare state is the last thing they want.