LANSING – The head the Michigan Department of Transportation declined to provide details of the governor’s proposal for increased road funding Tuesday before a Senate panel during his confirmation hearing but sought to make it clear that his belief is that the key to fixing the state’s deteriorating roads is more funding.
MDOT Director Paul Ajegba told members of the Senate Advice and Consent Committee his top areas of focus along with more funding will be on increasing efficiencies within the department, finding innovative solutions to designing and building roads and strengthening partnerships with local governments to leverage resources.
“Rather than fighting over slices of the funding pie, we need to work together to educate the public on the need to grow the entire pie and improve roads at all levels,” Ajegba said in his opening remarks.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer named Mr. Ajegba director in late December. He is a 28-year employee at MDOT and for three months prior to his appointment was the Metro Region engineer. Before that he was the University Region engineer for seven years. Ajegba has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Prairie View A&M University and master’s degree in construction engineering from the University of Michigan.
When pressed on specifics of how to increase funding, Ajegba said many “behind the scenes” discussions are ongoing ahead of Whitmer’s State of the State address next week and her budget presentation in March. He did not wish to preempt the governor on details of her proposal.
Whitmer during the gubernatorial campaign vowed to propose a budget in her first year with a $2 billion increase in road funding, a number in line with what independent experts have said is needed. She also has not said if a tax increase, which many if not all Republicans would likely oppose, would be an option, but has also floated selling bonds as a one-time infusion while working to find a long-term funding source.
A repeated focus by committee members was the current road-funding plan signed in 2015 that increased fuel taxes and registration fees while adding money from the General Fund for roads. The plan did not kick in until 2017 and does not reach the full $1.2 billion intended for transportation funding until 2021.
Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), chair of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, sat in on the hearing and asked about the appropriate funding level. He said in 2015 lawmakers were told $1.2 billion was needed, then after the road funding plan was passed that they were told almost immediately the funding level needs to be closer to $2 billion per year.
“It wears away that trust,” Barrett said.
Ajegba said he did not play a significant role in the 2015 road funding plan process but said more funding is needed. He said the department is in the process of obtaining numbers from local governments on their needs to allow for sharing an accurate figure of what funding is needed.
When asked about bonding by committee chair Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township), Ajegba said it is an option, but the department has traditionally tried not to go that route.
Later in the hearing it was pointed out that the last time the state did a significant bond for roads was more than a decade ago that those bonds are still being paid off.
Ajegba was asked about what would change under the department with his leadership. Under the previous director, Ajegba said lower level department heads were empowered to “do things a little bit differently” and think outside the box in finding solutions for doing projects more economically.
“(I’ll) take that to the next level,” Ajegba said.
Lucido asked Ajegba about the decades-old funding formula governing the use of transportation funding in the state.
“Does it need to be revisited?” Lucido said.
Ajegba said that is a legislative decision to look at the formula but cautioned against being too quick to make significant changes if that is the path the Legislature wants to take. He said everything in the funding formula could unravel if lawmakers were to “pull that one string.”
Following the hearing Lucido was noncommittal in comments to reporters as to when any formal vote would be taken on the confirmation of Ajegba or if one would be taken.
All gubernatorial department head appointments and appointments to some boards and commissions stand unless rejected by the Senate within 60 days. Most appointment hearings have been largely pro-forma in the past, particularly when the Republican-controlled Senate has had a Republican governor in office.
Lucido said his primary focus is to make sure appointees are competent and qualified for overseeing the offices they are tasked with leading.
This story was published by Gongwer News Service.