Paul Ajegba told the Senate Advice and Consent Committee that the $1.2 billion the Legislature approved in 2015 was insufficient. MDOT needed that much to cover its own road repair and maintenance costs, but only received 39 percent of the total, with the balance going to local road agencies, he said.
Though the state has more than 120,000 miles of roads, MDOT is primarily responsible for repairing and maintaining close to 10,000 miles of state trunk lines — highways with an "I", "US," or "M" in front of their identifying numbers.
Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, told Ajegba he thought the $1.2 billion approved in 2015 would significantly resolve the department's funding problems. The fact MDOT almost immediately came back with its hand out for more has resulted in an erosion of trust between the department and the Legislature, he said.
"I felt that the messaging that came from the department and the industry was that we needed $1.2 billion to put us in a position that we would be a lot better off for our roads," Barrett told Ajegba.
But as soon as that funding was approved, MDOT came back saying billions more was needed, Barrett said.
"If we rely on our industry leaders to give us that (estimate) and then we're told it wasn't sufficient, it wears away that trust," Barrett said.
Ajegba, a 26-year MDOT veteran named by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to head the transportation agency, was the first Whitmer nominee to appear before the Republican-controlled committee. Though senators pressed him on some issues, there was no suggestion they planned to reject his nomination.
"We all on this committee feel very confident, and more important, honored, to have you here," the committee chairman, Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, said at the end of the 90-minute hearing.
The governor's cabinet appointments don't require Senate confirmation, but the Senate can reject an appointee through a majority vote if it acts within 60 days. Such actions are rare.
Ajegba told senators he wasn't intimately involved with the 2015 road funding request, but it was his understanding that the agency said it needed $1.2 billion for its own roads needs. Instead, the $1.2 billion the Legislature approved was put through the funding formula set out in Public Act 51 of 1951, resulting in MDOT only receiving 39 percent of the money, or about $468 million, with the balance going to local road agencies.
For MDOT to get an additional $1.5 billion — the amount Ajegba said the agency needs — an additional $3.8 billion in road funding would have to be appropriated, assuming the money is put through the Act 51 formula, as required by state law.
Whitmer, who took office Jan. 1, has promised to set out "a real plan" to fix Michigan roads in her March budget, but has not said how much additional money will be needed or how that money will be raised. During the campaign, Whitmer suggested she would propose increased user fees and turn to bonding if lawmakers would not approve increased fees. But she never specified what user fees — such as gas taxes or vehicle registration fees — she felt should be increased, or by how much.
Whitmer also said Michigan's roads didn't deteriorate overnight, and they won't be fixed that quickly, either.
The 2015 road funding deal, which will be fully implemented in 2021 when general fund spending for roads hits $600 million, included a 20-percent increase in vehicle registration fees and a 7.3-cent-per-gallon increase in fuel taxes.
Ajegba told senators he didn't want to get in front of the governor on how much money was needed or how the money would be raised. But he cited an infrastructure study conducted under former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for his $1.5 billion figure for MDOT's road funding needs.
Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, came to Ajegba's defense on the question of whether MDOT ever said the 2015 road funding package would be sufficient.
Hertel cited a 2012 study that said MDOT needed another $1.2 billion for state trunk lines alone. And he noted even the $1.2 billion approved in 2015 won't be fully phased in until 2021.
"I assume the cost of fixing roads goes up each year?" Hertel asked Ajegba, who agreed that was true.
Hertel said if anyone is to blame for roads being in poor condition, it is likely members of the Legislature who have failed to approve adequate funding. We "probably should be looking in a mirror," he said.