Tag Archives: Michigan

Nestle pays 1/4,000 what you pay for water

When you turn on your tap or water your lawn, you are billed about 1.5¢ for every gallon of water you use. In south-east Michigan, this is water that comes from the Detroit river, chlorinated to remove bacteria, e.g. from sewage, and delivered to you by pipe. When Nestle’s Absopure division buys water, it pays about 1/4000 as much — $200/ year for 218 gallons per minute, and they get their water from a purer source, a pure glacial aquifer that has no sewage and needs no chlorine. They get a far better deal than you do, in part because they provide the pipes, but it’s mostly because they have the financial clout to negotiate the deal. They sell the Michigan water at an average price around $1/gallon, netting roughly $100,000,000 per year (gross). This allows them to buy politicians — something you and I can not afford.

Absopure advertises that I t will match case-for-case water donations to Flint. Isn't that white of them.

Absopure advertises that I t will match case-for-case water donations to Flint. That’s awfully white of them.

We in Michigan are among the better customers for the Absopure water. We like the flavor, and that it’s local. Several charities purchase it for the folks of nearby Flint because their water is near undrinkable, and because the Absopure folks have been matching the charitable purchases bottle-for bottle. It’s a good deal for Nestle, even at 50¢/gallon, but not so-much for us, and I think we should renegotiate to do better. Nestle has asked to double their pumping rate, so this might be a good time to ask to increase our payback per gallon. So far, our state legislators have neither said yes or no to the proposal to pump more, but are “researching the matter.” I take this to mean they’re asking Nestle for campaign donations — the time-honored Tammany method. Here’s a Detroit Free Press article.

I strongly suspect we should use this opportunity to raise the price by a factor of 400 to 4000, to 0.15¢ to 1.5¢ per gallon, and I would like to require Absopure to supply a free 1 million gallons per year. We’d raise $300,000 to $3,000,000 per year and the folks of Flint would have clean water (some other cities need too). And Nestle’s Absopure would still make $200,000,000 off of Michigan’s, clean, glacial water.

Robert Buxbaum, May 15, 2017. I ran for water commissioner, 2016, and have occasionally blogged about water, E.g. fluoridationhidden rivers, and how you would drain a swamp, literally.

The straight flush

I’m not the wildest libertarian, but I’d like to see states rights extended to Michigan’s toilets and showers. Some twenty years ago, the federal government mandated that the maximum toilet flush volume could be only 1.6 gallons, the same as Canada. They also mandated a maximum shower-flow law, memorialized in this Seinfeld episode. Like the characters in those shows, I think this is government over-reach of states rights covered by the 10th amendment. As I understand it, the only powers of the federal government over states are in areas specifically in the constitution, in areas of civil rights (the 13th Amendment), or in areas of restraint of trade (the 14th Amendment). None of that applies here, IMHO. It seems to me that the states should be able to determine their own flush and shower volumes.

If this happen to you often, you might want to use more water for each flush, or  at least a different brand of toilet paper.

If your toilet clogs often, you might want to use more flush water, or at least a different brand of toilet paper.

There is a good reason for allowing larger flushes, too in a state with lots of water. People whose toilets have long, older pipe runs find that there is insufficient flow to carry their stuff to the city mains. Their older pipes were designed to work with 3.5 gallon flushes. When you flush with only 1.6 gallons, the waste only goes part way down and eventually you get a clog. It’s an issue known to every plumber – one that goes away with more flush volume.

Given my choice, I’d like to change the flush law through the legislature, perhaps following a test case in the Supreme court. Similar legislation is in progress with marijuana decriminalization, but perhaps it’s too much to ask folks to risk imprisonment for a better shower or flush. Unless one of my readers feels like violating the federal law to become the test case, I can suggest some things you can do immediately. When it comes to your shower, you’ll find you can modify the flow by buying a model with a flow restrictor and “ahem” accidentally losing the restrictor. When it comes to your toilet, I don’t recommend buying an older, larger tank. Those old tanks look old. A simpler method is to find a new flush cistern with a larger drain hole and flapper. The drain hole and flapper in most toilet tanks is only 2″ in diameter, but some have a full 3″ hole and valve. Bigger hole, more flush power. Perfectly legal. And then there’s the poor-man solution: keep a bucket or washing cup nearby. If the flush looks problematic, pour the extra water in to help the stuff go down. It works.

A washing cup.

A washing cup. An extra liter for those difficult flushes.

Aside from these suggestions, if you have clog trouble, you should make sure to use only toilet paper, and not facial tissues or flushable wipes. If you do use these alternatives, only use one sheet at a flush, and the rest TP, and make sure your brand of wipe is really flushable. Given my choice, I would like see folks in Michigan have freedom of the flush. Let them install a larger tank if they like: 2 gallons, or 2.5; and I’d like to see them able to use Newman’s Serbian shower heads too, if it suits them. What do you folks think?

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, November 3, 2016. I’m running for Oakland county MI water resources commissioner. I’m for protecting our water supply, for better sewage treatment, and small wetlands for flood control. Among my less-normative views, I’ve also suggested changing the state bird to the turkey, and ending daylight savings time.

Weir dams to slow the flow and save our lakes

As part of explaining why I want to add weir dams to the Red Run drain, and some other of our Oakland county drains, I posed the following math/ engineering problem: if a weir dam is used to double the depth of water in a drain, show that this increases the residence time by a factor of 2.8 and reduces the flow speed by 1/2.8. Here is my solution.

A series of weir dams on Blackman Stream, Maine. Mine would be about as tall, but somewhat further apart.

A series of weir dams on Blackman Stream, Maine. Mine would be about as tall, but wider and further apart. The dams provide oxygenation and hold back sludge.

Let’s assume the shape of the bottom of the drain is a parabola, e.g. y = x, and that the dams are spaced far enough apart that their volume is small compared to the volume of water. We now use integral calculus to calculate how the volume of water per mile, V is affected by water height:  V =2XY- ∫ y dx = 2XY- 2/3 X3 =  4/3 Y√Y. Here, capital Y is the height of water in the drain, and capital X is the horizontal distance of the water edge from the drain centerline. For a parabolic-bottomed drain, if you double the height Y, you increase the volume of water per mile by 2√2. That’s 2.83, or about 2.8 once you assume some volume to the dams.

To find how this affects residence time and velocity, note that the dam does not affect the volumetric flow rate, Q (gallons per hour). If we measure V in gallons per mile of drain, we find that the residence time per mile of drain (hours) is V/Q and that the speed (miles per hour) is Q/V. Increasing V by 2.8 increases the residence time by 2.8 and decreases the speed to 1/2.8 of its former value.

Why is this important? Decreasing the flow speed by even a little decreases the soil erosion by a lot. The hydrodynamic lift pressure on rocks or soil is proportional to flow speed-squared. Also, the more residence time and the more oxygen in the water, the more bio-remediation takes place in the drain. The dams slow the flow and promote oxygenation by the splashing over the weirs. Cells, bugs and fish do the rest; e.g. -HCOH- + O2 –> CO2 + H2O. Without oxygen, the fish die of suffocation, and this is a problem we’re already seeing in Lake St. Clair. Adding a dam saves the fish and turns the run into a living waterway instead of a smelly sewer. Of course, more is needed to take care of really major flood-rains. If all we provide is a weir, the water will rise far over the top, and the run will erode no better (or worse) than it did before. To reduce the speed during those major flood events, I would like to add a low bicycle path and some flood-zone picnic areas: just what you’d see on Michigan State’s campus, by the river.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, May 12, 2016. I’d also like to daylight some rivers, and separate our storm and toilet sewage, but those are longer-term projects. Elect me water commissioner.

Follow the feces; how to stop the poisoning

In Oakland county, we regularly poison our basements and our lake St Clair beaches with feces — and potentially our water supply too. We have a combined storm and sanitary sewer system that mixes feces-laden sanitary sewage with rainwater, and our pipes are too old and small to handle the amount of storm water from our larger rains. A group called “Save Lake St. Clair” is up in arms but the current commissioner claims the fault is not his. It’s global warming, he says, and the rains are bigger now. Maybe, or maybe the fault is wealth: more and more of the county is covered by asphalt, so less rain water can soak in the ground. Whatever the cause, the Commissioner should deal with it (I’m running for water commissioner, BTW). As the chart of toxic outfalls shows, we’ve had regular toxic sewage discharges into the Red Run basically every other week, with no exceptional rainfalls: only 0.9″ to 1.42″.

Toxic outfalls into lake St Clair, Feb 20 to Mar 20, 2016. There were also two outfalls into the Rouge in this period. These are too many to claim they are once in hundred-year events.

Toxic outfalls into lake St Clair, Feb 20 to Mar 20, 2016. There were also two outfalls into the Rouge in this period. These are too many to claim they are once in hundred-year events.

Because we have a combined system, the liquid level rises in our sewers whenever it rains. When the level is above the level of a basement floor drain, mixed sewage comes up into the basement. A mix of storm water comes up mixed with poop and anything else you and your neighbors flush down. Mixed sewage can come up even if the sewers were separate, but far less often. Currently most of the dry outfall from our old, combined sewers is sent to Detroit’s Waste Water Treatment plant near Zug Island. When there is a heavy rain, the pipe to Zug is overwhelmed. We avoid flooding your basement every other week by diverting as much as we can of the mixed storm water and septic sewage to lake St. Clair. This is poop, barely treated, and the fishermen and environmentalists hate it.

The beaches along Lake St Clair are closed every other week: whenever the pipes to Detroit start getting overwhelmed, whenever there is about 1″ or rain. Worse yet, the sewage is enters the lake just upstream of the water intake on Belle Isle, see map below. Overflow sewage follows the red lines entering the Clinton River through the GW Kuhn — Red Run Drain or through the North Branch off the River. From there it flows out into Lake St. Clair near Selfridge ANG, generally hugging the Michigan shore of the lake, following the light blue line to poison the metro beaches. it enters the water intake for the majority of Oakland County at the Belle Island water intakes, lower left.

Follow the feces to see why our beeches are polluted. It's just plain incompetence.

The storm water plus septic sewage mix is not dumped raw into lake St. Clair, but it’s nearly raw. The only treatment is to be spritzed with bleach in the Red Run Drain. The result is mats of black gunk with floating turds, toilet paper and tampons. This water is filtered before we drink it, and it’s sprayed with more chlorine, but that’s not OK. We can do much better than this. We don’t have to regularly dump poop into the river just upstream of our water intake. I favor a two-prong solution.

The first, quick solution is to have better pumps to send the sewage to Detroit. This is surprisingly expensive since we still have to treat the rain water. Also it doesn’t take care of the biggest rains; there is a limit to what our pipes will handle, but it stops some basement flooding, and it avoids some poisoning of our beaches and drinking water.

This is our combined sewer system showing a tunnel cistern (yuk) and the outflow into the Red Run. We can do better

A combined sewer system showing a tunnel cistern. Outflow goes into the Red Run. We can do better.

A second, longer term solution is to disentangle the septic from the storm sewers. My approach would be to do this in small steps, beginning by diverting some storm runoff into small wetlands or French drain retention. Separating the sewers this way is cheaper and more environmentally sound than trying to treat the mixed flow in Detroit, and the wetlands and drains would provide pleasant park spaces, but the project will take decades to complete. If done right, this would save quite a lot over sending so much liquid to Detroit, and it’s the real solution to worries about your floor drains back-flowing toxic sludge into your basement.

The incumbent, I fear, has little clue about drainage or bio-treatment. His solution is to build a $40MM tunnel cistern along Middlebelt road. This cistern only holds 3 MM gallons, less than 1/100 of the volume needed for even a moderate rain. Besides, at $13/gallon of storage, it is very costly solution compared to my preference — a French drain (costs about 25¢/gallon of storage). The incumbents cistern has closed off traffic for months between 12 and 13 mile, and is expected to continue for a year, until January, 2017. It doesn’t provide any bio-cleaning, unlike a French drain, and the cistern leaks. Currently groundwater is leaking in. This has caused the lowering of the water table and the closure of private wells. If the leak isn’t fixed , the cistern will leak septic sewage into the groundwater, potentially infecting people for miles around with typhus, cholera, and all sorts of 3rd world plagues.

There is also an explosion hazard to the incumbent’s approach. A tunnel cistern like this blew up near my undergraduate college sending manhole covers flying. This version has much bigger manhole covers: 15′ cement, not 2′ steel. If someone pours gasoline down the drain during a rainstorm and if a match went in later, the result could be deadly. The people building these projects are the same ones who fund the incumbent’s campaign, and I suspect they influenced him for this mis-chosen approach. They are the folks I fear he goes to for engineering advice. If you’d like to see a change for the better. Elect me, Elect an engineer.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, March 26, 2016. Go here to volunteer or contribute.

Michigan, an emerging economy

Between 2009 and 2014, Michigan’s per-capita GDP grew at 14% per year, an amazing growth rate similar to that of an emerging, tiger economies. According tot the Bureau of Economic analysis, the only US states that grew faster were Texas and North Dakota, and these oil states were hit badly in the current year 2015-16.
GDPGROWTH

 

Unfortunately, Michigan remains relatively poor despite it’s growth. Its per-capita GDP, $20,263 (2016), lags behind even perennial backwaters like Vermont, Oklahoma, and Missouri. The wealth gap in Michigan is growing, as in an emerging economy, and the cities, e.g. Detroit and Flint, are known for high murder rates, and a large-scale bankruptcy.

Michigan population change, Detroit Free Press

Michigan population change, Detroit Free Press

Then there’s pollution and flooding. Our beaches close for e-coli after every major rain, and we recently found that the drinking water in Flint was contaminated with lead; it seems other MI cities have lead problems too. Add to this, that we’ve  had major floods, a result of mismanagement, cronyism, and rampant growth, and Michigan keeps looking more and more like Vietnam, China, and India.

Everything here isn’t third world, though. We replaced our hapless, ex-governor Granholm with a relatively competent (in my opinion) nerd, Rick Snyder. We’ve jailed the of worst crooks, e.g. Detroit’s walking-crime-wave mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, and his father, “Pay-for-play”, and the corrupt city manager, Bobby Ferguson. Under the previous administration, the state population shrank. It is now growing slowly.

Flood of 2014; the view at 696 and Mound rd. It's just incompetence.

Flood of 2014; the view at 696 and Mound rd. It’s part incompetence and part growth.

 

We passed a needed roads bill. Taxes are high, but not as bad as Illinois, and even Detroit is beginning to look good, at least in the center city. Industry is coming back, and so is Michigan real-estate. Here are some of my ideas going forward: pay our teachers well, and don’t imprison for so long. Some ideas to keep us on the upswing.

Robert Buxbaum, February 23, 2016. I’m running to be the Oakland county water commissioner, by the way.

How to help Flint and avoid lead here.

As most folks know, Flint has a lead-poisoning problem that seems to have begun in April, 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Detroit-supplied, Lake Huron water to their own plant pulling water from the Flint River. Here are some thoughts on how to help the affected population, and how to avoid a repeat in Oakland county, where I’m running for water commissioner. First observation, it is not enough to make sure that source water does not contain lead. The people who decided on the switch had found that the Flint river water had no significant lead or other obvious toxins. A key problem, it seems: the river water did not contain anticorrosion phosphates, and none, it seems, were added by the Flint water folks. After the switch, citizens started seeing disgusting, brown water come from their taps, and citizens with lead pipes or solder were poisoned with ppb-levels of lead.

Flint water, Sept 2015, before switching back to Lake Huron.

Flint water after 5 hours of flushing, Sept 2015, before switching back to Lake Huron.

The city switched back to Detroit-supplied, Lake Huron water in October, 2015, and they started adding triple doses of phosphates to the water in December. As a result, Flint tap-water is now back within EPA standards, but it’s still likely unsafe, see here for more details.

There has been a fair amount of finger-pointing. At Detroit for raising the price of water so Flint had to switch, at workers for ignoring the early signs of lead, at other employees for not adding the additive, and at “the system” for not caring, or providing Flint with decent infrastructure. I suspect that a lot of the problem is ignorance in the water commission. We elect our water commissioners, and folks seem to pick them the same way we pick presidents: for a nice smile, a great handshake, and an ability to remember names. That, anyway, seems to be the way that Oakland got its current water commissioner. When you pick your commissioner that way, it’s no surprise that he (or she) isn’t particularly sensitive to corrosion, an invisible chemical phenomenon that few people understand.

Flint river water contains corrosive chloride. Contributing to the corrosion problem, I’m going to guess that Flint River water also contains an industrial chelating chemical used in plating, EDTA in 10s of ppb concentrations. EDTA isn’t poisonous at these concentrations, but it’s the most commonly used antidote for lead poisoning and commonly used in industry. At these concentrations, EDTA extracts lead and other metals from people and I’m going to guess that this same chemical, or something very similar, contributed to the process that extracted lead and iron oxide from the pipes. With EDTA in the water, no amount of phosphate would avoid or solve the lead poisoning problem.

Detroit ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has claimed that both Flint water and Detroit water were known to be poisoned even a decade before the switch. I find these claims believable given the high levels of lead in kids blood even before the switch. Also, I note that there are areas of Detroit where the blood-lead levels are higher than Flint. Flint did not test at the taps in a scientifically acceptable way during the first days of the poisoning, and neither, I suspect, do many of our MI cities today. My first suggestion therefore is to test correctly, both at the pipes and at the taps; lead pipes are most-often found in the last few feet before the tap. In particular, we should test at all schools and other places where the state has direct authorization to fix the problem. A MI senate bill has been proposed to this effect, but I’m not sure where it stands in the MI house. It seems there are movements to add lots of ‘riders’ and that’s usually a bad sign.

Another thought is that citizens should be encouraged to test their private taps and helped to fix them. The state can’t come in and test or rip out your private pipes, even if they suspect lead, but the private owner has that authorization. The state could condemn a private property where they believe the water is bad, but I doubt they could evict the residents. It’s a democratic republic, as I understand; you have the right to be deadly stupid. But I’ll take my own suggestion to encourage you: If you think your water has lead, take a sample and call (517) 335-8184. Do it.

Another suggestion, perhaps the easiest and most important, is to provide an antidote. The main antidotes for lead are chelating compounds, and we’re already providing bottles of imported water. Why not provide some of the water with compounds that help extract lead from people. And here I have an interesting thought. Assuming I am right that Flint River water had enough EDTA to cause/ worsen the problem, the cheapest/ best antidote might be Flint River water. You’d want to draw the water with plastic pipes and chlorinate it to rid it of bugs, but if there is EDTA it will help the poisoned. EDTA is a known lead-poisoning antidote. Another antidote is Succinct acid, something sold by REB Research, my company. There are other antidotes too, but wouldn’t it be cool if Flint river water worked?

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 19-31, 2016. I hope this helps. We’d have to check Flint River water for levels of EDTA, but I suspect we’d find it at 50 ppb, or so, a biologically significant concentration. If you think Oakland should have an engineer in charge of the water, elect Buxbaum for water commissioner.

State bird suggestion: the turkey

state bird stamps; robin cardinal

three US states use the (american) robin as their state bird, and 7 more use the (northern) cardinal. None use the turkey

As things now stand, three states of the union, including Michigan have the robin as their state bird. Another seven have the cardinal. Not that they have different species of robin or cardinal, they use the same species: the American robin, and the Northern cardinal respectively.

A thought I’ve had is that Michigan should change to have a unique bird symbol, and I propose the turkey, in particular the eastern wild turkey shown below. The robin is found in every state of the union except for Hawaii, and is found in several countries, it’s associated with Robin Hood, and with Batman’s side-kick. By contrast, the eastern wild turkey could be a unique state symbol. It’s basically found in no other country besides the US, and found in only a few US states including Michigan.

Eastern Wild Turkey. A majestic bird, and brave Maximum height: 4 foot.

Eastern Wild Turkey. A majestic bird, and brave. Maximum height: 4 foot.

The eastern wild turkey is a far more impressive bird than the cardinal or robin. Full grown, it stands 4 foot tall. Benjamin Franklin claimed to have preferred the turkey (likely the eastern wild turkey) to the eagle as the national bird of the US. In this wonderful letter to his daughter, Sarah, he says that it is a noble bird, useful and the source of sustenance. He also claims it is unafraid to attack a British regimen, claims that also appears in this song, “the egg” in the play/movie 1776. The turkey most definitely provided food for the Indians, for the early European settlers, and still provides for Michigan hunters to this day. Further, turkey feathers are the preferred choice for quill pens. They are used for scribes writing holy works, like copies of the Torah, and it is likely they were used for the declaration of Independence. The same history and associations can not be claimed for the robins or the cardinal. Those birds are basically attractive, and nothing else.

Not that attractive is bad, nor is it bd to have a state bird associated with Batman’s side-kick, or with a Saint Louis baseball team, but I don’t think either is particularly appropriate for Michigan. Not that there are no disadvantages to the name turkey: (1) it might suggest a slow individual or project, and (2) Wild Turkey is the name of a Tennessee bourbon whiskey. Neither of these are quite a bad as being a sidekick to the bat, or to the batman, and I think both are addressed by specifying that the state bird is the eastern wild turkey, and not just some random variety. What say ye, citizens of Michigan? Let’s do it before someone else takes the turkey.

Robert Buxbaum, December 16, 2015.

Is cannibal tourism good for Michigan?

Governor Snyder has no appetite for it, but ex-governor Jennifer Granholm did, and some of her Democratic colleagues still do. Not cannibal tourism, as such, but movie subsidies paid for by a tax on business property independent of profits. Some seven years ago, in 2008, then-governor Granholm and a majority of our legislature instituted a $132 million/year subsidy program that provided up to 42% of movie production costs. The hope was that films would bring Hollywood-type wealth and glamor, and that they would spark tourism. As it happened, the jobs went to Hollywood transients to such an extent that the total number of MI film employees was reduced. It is now 100 lower than at the start, and virtually all of the money spent went to out-of state employees (quite often the high-priced star) who left as soon as the filming was done. The report concluded that the program returned 11¢ for every tax dollar spent. One of Governor Snyder’s first acts was to diminish the subsidies, and the legislature has just put an end to them: revenge of the nerd.

Offspring, filmed in Michigan. It does not seem to have promoted Michigan tourism.

Offspring: no jobs created, and perhaps no tourism … but think of the cool factor.

The amount spent in the early years, $132 million/year, was about 1/3 of the state’s deficit, a major misuse of funds. Reason magazine claimed it was “stone-crazy” to support movies when the state had, at the time, 14% unemployment, the highest rate in the nation. They argued that the money could be better spent on roads, or schools, or left in folks’ pockets (I agree).

The effect on tourism isn’t quite what was hoped. Movie makers tend to see Michigan as a setting for dystopian films, for example, “Offspring,” a film about cannibal tourism. This film got one of the largest state subsidies. A plot summary is:  “Survivors of a feral flesh-eating clan are chowing their way through the locals.” If this encouraged tourism, it’s not necessarily the tourists you wanted. You can tell it’s Michigan by the Michigan symbol on the police cars. Michigan funds also brought two Batman movies to Detroit, along with Michael Moor’s “Capitalism, a love story“, a  movie billed as showing how capitalism makes life in America a nightmare. The current head of the film board has noted that “realistic cannibalism; the gruesome and graphically violent depiction …. is unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light.” I can agree.

Batman and Superman in Detroit.

“Batman vs Superman.” They battle in Downtown Detroit, as do “Red Dawn” and “Transformers.”

Opposition to dropping the program came mostly from the Democratic side of the aisle. Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, said the film incentives were creating good jobs. Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton, pointed to “… the cool factor. Who doesn’t want to see Ben Affleck or Amy Adams walk down our streets?” (I don’t). In the end, three Democrats and virtually every Republican voted to end the program. Among the Republicans for keeping the program were Kathy Crawford R-Novi, and Mike McCready, R-Birmingham.

You should not feel too bad for the makers of gore films. Subsides are still available in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, California, Minnesota, Nevada, and several other states. Massachusetts welcomed Part 2 of The Offspring, a Massachusetts headline proclaimed the victory: “Come to Massachusetts, We Love Cannibals!” Massachusetts folks have been full of themselves for years. As for the money we saved, our Michigan legislature has finally begun balancing the budget and decreasing the destructive personal property tax that helped fund these schemes.

Robert E. Buxbaum, November 5, 2015. I should also commend the legislature for making “talk like a pirate day” a state holiday, and for passing, on November 3, a necessary roads bill. It was signed by most Republicans and two Democrats. Bipartisan-ish. With good management, Michigan might be coming back – lets hope it continues.

Michigan’s road bill — why not?

Stagnating before the Michigan Senate is a road improvement bill that passed the Michigan house 10 days ago. Though it’s not great, I hope they sign the bill. The bill would raise raise $600 million to $1.2 billion/year, an increase of $60 to $120 per person per year ratcheting up over the next six years. The first stage of the bill would take effect in October 2016, and would raise $400 million by increasing our car/ truck registration fees by about 40%. People with normal sedans would pay about $60 more per car per year. Those with more expensive, heavier vehicles would pay more. Though our registration fee is already among the highest in the nation, raising it further has the potential (It seems to me) to be the most fair and reasonable source of additional revenue. People with fancy cars, I imagine, are wealthy and those with heavy cars (I imagine) do the most road damage. This is the part of the bill that has proven the most contentious.

The next stage would begin in early 2018. It would raise $200 million by increasing Michigan diesel and gasoline taxes. The larger part would be on diesel fuel, an increase of 7.3 cents/gal presumably to soak out-of-state truckers who come through Michigan. These individuals deserve extra taxation, I imagine, because they don’t pay registration fees and probably damage our roads even more than those with fancy cars. Besides, they don’t vote in Michigan. The gas tax increase is smaller, 3.3 cents/ gal on regular gas, but Democrats are correct to point out that it is regressive. It takes a greater fraction from the poorer than from the rich. The hope is that, by the time the tax increase takes effect, we’ll have some inflation and also some more fuel-efficient cars so the bite won’t be as bad. Sorry to say, we already pay the 10th highest gas tax in the country.

The final phase of the road funding bill would not take full effect until 2021. The idea is to transfer $600 million from the general fund to pay for the roads with money left over to reduce home-owner taxes. Underlying the ability to do this is an assumption that Michigan industry and home prices will recover enough between now and then that we’ll be able to stop using the gasoline taxes to fund our schools, ideally with money left over from the regular income and sales tax. While I’d like to see this happen, and while this is possible given that the last few years have seen the state’s GDP recover at a 15.5+% growth rate (third highest in the nation) there is also a basis to say the assumptions are over- optimistic. On the other hand, the Democratic plan, based on 1.6% growth next year is likely over-pessimistic. As The Yogi says, “Predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.”

Whatever your views of the future, our roads are crumbling now, and new money is needed to fix them now before they get worse. If taxes must be raised, I’m inclined to do it with use -taxes, that is by charging those who use the services most. This is a philosophical preference of mine. Not all Republicans agree with this, and only one House Democrat has signed on so far. It was the view of the old-time, labor Democrats I grew up with, but not of today’s Democrats who prefer to tax “the rich” for any and all goods and services. Their point: that there are struggling, poor people who drive heavy, expensive cars. They’ve something of a point on the heavy cars, but I have less sympathy for the rest. I wrote a comic story about a poor guy trying to dispose of an expensive car, a Viper. My guess is that struggling rappers and poser politicians would not find it funny.

Dollars per capita spent on roads, 2013. From MDoT's road funding proposal.

Dollars per capita spent on roads, 2013. From MDoT’s road funding proposal.

Part of the way that MDoT (the Michigan Department of Transportation) justified its target of $600 million to $1.2 billion was by comparison with surrounding states — not my favorite way of analysis. The MDoT graphic shows that Michiganians spend about $57 less per capita on roads than folks in Illinois, Wisconsin, or Ohio, and about $100 less than folks in Indiana or Pennsylvania. Multiply $57 by our state’s population, 10 million, and they conclude we should spend some $570 million more per year. Multiply by $100, and you get $1.0 billion.

While the need for at least $600 million/year sounds about right, I note that the per-capita spending justification seems dubious. If you calculate instead on the basis of dollars per lane-mile, as below, you find that Michiganians are already paying more per mile than Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Indiana. You’ll also note that Ohio and Illinois pays about 1 1/2 times as much their roads aren’t much better. A major part of the variation, I suspect, is corruption, and the rest, I guess is incompetence. Illinois, perhaps the most corrupt state in the mid-west, has seen 4 of its past 5 governors go to jail, along with innumerable Chicago Aldermen and lesser officials. Citizens of Illinois pay for this corruption in over-size construction projects, and over-size construction fees. After the $600 million increase, we’ll pay $8,950 per lane mile suggesting we are still not quite as costly per lan-mile as Illinois or Ohio. If it turns out we need the full $1.2 billion extra, it will suggest we are even more incompetent or corrupt than Illinois.

Road funding state by state comparison.

Road funding state by state comparison, from the same MDoT report, 2013.

An ideal way I’d like to reduce the costs of Michigan’s roads would be to reduce corruption, a trend that’s already helped to revitalize Detroit since the Justice department jailed the mayor and his father plus some associates for “pay for play”. I’m sure it also helped to remove the chief of police (millions in his ceiling) and Bobby Ferguson of the useless, expensive Jail project and Guardian building scandal.

Conviceted IL

It’s somewhat hard to judge the level of general incompetence in a state, and even harder to find a fix. Minnesota had a bridge collapse in 2007, and we had the Zilwaukee in 1982 (and 2008), the 9 mile bridge collapse of 2009, and the Southfield overpass collapse of 2014. It’s been proposed that we should be able to fix both our corruption and our incompetence problems by holding the contractors responsible for any failures. If only it were that easy. Holding contractors responsible might get some contractors to allow the concrete cure for longer periods under water before opening a road, but I’m not sure the public would stand for it. A more-likely outcome is that crooked contractors would charge more for the same bad work, and then go bankrupt as soon as the road fails. If their company were appropriately structured, they could re-appear the next day: the same people and equipment, operating under a new corporate name.

The biggest single incompetence issue that I can see appears to be poor under-road drainage. In Oakland county, where I am, the drain department looks responsible for the major flood of last summer. We’ve had rains this big in previous years without this massive flooding. I suspect a lack of dry-wells, but don’t know. From what I see, the drainage is bad beneath many Oakland roads, too. It seems like the concrete slabs are not deteriorating as much as they are coming apart. That’s a sign of bad drainage. I also see sink-holes, new lakes, and places where the sidewalks sink. Again, that’s a sign of bad drainage; a sign there is a swamp near or beneath the road. If the ground below a major road is a swamp, there is no practical way a contractor can build a long-lasting road over it. Until the drains get better, or the corruption subsides, we’re going to have to replace the roads often at a cost of another $600 million/year. We might as well acknowledge our problems and sign the bill.

Robert Buxbaum, November 2-3, 2015. If you feel like getting involved, contact your state senator and tell him/her to vote yes (or no). Our senator is Vince Gregory. And if anyone would like to put me on a drainage board, I’d be happy to serve for free.