Last weekend, best-selling author Jeff Zaslow was driving home to West Bloomfield from a book-signing event in Petoskey.
He never got very far. He apparently hit a patch of ice, and went into the path of a tractor-trailer. I knew him only very slightly, but he was, by all accounts, a very decent man. A few hours later I was on the same stretch of road. We also hit unsuspected ice, and went sailing into the oncoming lane. Except, fortunately, nobody was coming.
Had this happened two minutes later, we would have been in the path of a giant truck hauling propane. The road was littered with wrecks, and at one point near Kalkaska, six ambulances rushed by with sirens wailing. This was white-knuckle stuff of the worst kind.
Later, I mentioned this to Mark Dobias, an irreverent and highly skilled lawyer who defends clients all across Michigan's north country. "Never underestimate the capriciousness of northern Michigan Roads and big trucks in the winter. I know this stretch well. Never assume that a road is plowed, salted or sanded in these days of reduced manpower. No matter what the man says."
Naturally, I don't know if Zaslow would have survived or I would have had an easier time if the roads had been better maintained. It wasn't a good day to be driving, period.
What I do know is that Michigan roads are in bad shape and getting worse. Officially, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) says almost 90 percent of our roads are in good or fair condition. To anyone who drives a lot around Detroit, that may seem a trifle overoptimistic. But things may soon get worse, fast.
We've been neglecting the long-term needs of our roads and bridges for a long time, and MDOT also estimates that unless we start spending a whole lot more on them, in a mere eight years from now, only 44 percent of our roads will be in tolerable shape.
Yep, I look forward to driving on gravel, with chunks of concrete falling on my car from decaying overpasses. I'll bet that's just the way to attract a lot of new business to the state too.
Gov. Rick Snyder gets that. Now, I know I will be slammed as an apologist for him by some on the left who are waiting for Zolton Ferency or Ken Cockrel the first to come back and save us. However, the reality is that Democrats have no power in today's Lansing.
Nada, zip. And in many ways — not by any means all — Snyder is relatively enlightened, especially compared to many of the corrupt and/or stupid trolls in the Legislature. The governor wants to dedicate $1.4 billion in new spending to our roads, the minimum amount the experts say we need to prevent them from getting much worse.
Unfortunately, this will take money. Last year, he proposed financing much of this with a hefty vehicle registration fee increase. The lawmakers acted as if he had dropped a stone into their soup.
They utterly ignored his proposal. This year, Snyder is proposing a more modest registration fee increase, and to get most of the money by increasing the gas tax by nine cents a gallon.
Sound like a lot? You would scarcely notice. The price of gas ping-pongs around now, fluctuating by as much as 30 cents from day to day. You really would end up saving money, even in the relatively short run. Federal data shows drivers in the Detroit area pay an average of $536 a year more for extra gas and extra repairs because of problem roads.
I paid more than that a few years ago, when I lost a wheel to a pothole on the Lodge Freeway. Spending to fix our roads is about as much of a no-brainer as buying a warm coat in February.
Yet, incredibly, there is a chance the delta-minus thinkers in the Legislature could refuse to vote to approve extra money to fix our roads. This is an election year for every member of the Michigan House. A few of them are ignorant and fanatic Tea Party members, who regard any tax increase as evil, even if not spending the money would wreck civilization and cost us all more in the long run.
Others are afraid of being challenged in primary elections by Tea Party fanatics, or of being painted as tax-and-spenders in the general election. Sadly, a few empty-headed liberals feel the same way. When M-Live blogger Jeff Wattrick presented a detailed analysis of the road situation a few weeks ago, he was savaged by a procession of infantile left-wing posters.
"I'm poor and can't afford it," one said. Others whined that we have too many roads, the rich should be made to pay, we should all take trains instead, etc., etc. Well, that's all very nice.
Unfortunately, those who work for a living have to live in the world we've got. Common sense may be a pretty uncommon thing, but we damn well need a dose of it. Whether you are poor or rich, want to get to a job, find a job to get to, or attract new business and industry to the state, you need good roads and bridges that aren't falling apart and wrecking the cars passing under them.
Incidentally, we could get an automatic $2.1 billion to help fix our roads absolutely free of charge from the federal government if we just agree to take $550 million from Canada, to cover the costs of building a needed new bridge across the Detroit River.
That's because Washington will allow us to use that as matching funds. We don't have to pay the Canadians back until the bridge is up and running years from now, and even then we can do it out of our share of the toll revenues. Oh, but I forgot: Our legislators won't agree to that either. Speaking of which ...
Update on Matty's boy: Last week, I detailed a number of legislators who took money from Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun and then have loyally voted to prevent a new bridge from being built across the Detroit River. Perhaps the principal culprit was one State Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake), who, as chair of a state Senate committee, voted to prevent a bill authorizing the new bridge from coming before the full Senate. This is a bridge, remember, that his own Republican governor and every other corporate and business interest in the state wants.
Last week, MIRS, the Lansing-based Michigan Information Research Service, reported that Kowall said he doesn't read Metro Times, but added that he thought I "had an ax to grind and was looking to place it firmly in my head."
But MIRS reported some other things too. Chief among them were that Kowall and his wife, Eileen, a state representative, had taken more than $9,200 from a political action committee, or PAC — and that this money went improperly unreported on both lawmakers' campaign finance reports. Asked about this, Kowall said: Duh, he couldn't remember what the money went for.
Yup, happens to me all the time. Somebody gives me $9,288 who has something he wants me to do, and I forget about it and forget how I spent it. Let's give Rich Robinson, head of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the last word.
"In this business, there's slime and there's crime. This looks like slime, but it's a story that needs to be told, that's for sure."