Drive through Owosso, Michigan, and you’ll realize: Crumbling infrastructure isn’t just a big-city problem.
OWOSSO, Mich.—Driving through downtown Owosso, commuters are greeted with beautiful buildings, a lively downtown atmosphere with local businesses and shops, and that small-town ambiance that lends itself to making complete strangers feel at home.
But taking a detour off the main stretch and onto one of the city’s sidestreets—particularly those as you head south on M-52 or east on M-71—and drivers are left navigating a slew of potholes and deteriorating roads.
It’s this issue of failing infrastructure that really captured Mayor Chris Eveleth’s attention back in 2009, when he first joined the Owosso City Council. And the city’s issues didn’t begin or end with the roadway.
“We had streets that were as bad as any other,” Eveleth told The ‘Gander. “(The city had) sewer and water plants that were sometimes decades past their useful life.”
A compliance analyst at Jackson National by trade, Eveleth is used to crunching numbers and understanding laws, but some of the numbers he sees as it pertains to Owosso’s infrastructure are alarming.
“We’ve made incredible repairs to our sewer plant that have basically ensured that we will never have to dump overflow into the (Shiawassee) river ever again,” he continued. “We’re seeing the before and after pictures and seeing the upgrades that we’ve made and the investments that we’ve made to ensure that the next generation of people in Owosso is never going to have to deal with a failure in any of our most crucial systems.”
And that has just been the tip of the iceberg. Eveleth says he and the city have now turned their sights toward contending with the state’s lead and copper rule regarding water service lines, where city water sources connect to homes.
Owosso is a city with a lot of history. It, along with other small communities in Shiawassee County, has played roles in larger historical events. Owosso was a stop along the underground railroad, for example. And west of town, where the Owosso Speedway racetrack now sits, used to be a prisoner of war camp during World War II.
But with that history comes older infrastructure that needs more attention, and older homes that have lead and galvanized water hookups. In 2020, the state began making municipalities responsible for replacing those hookups rather than putting the responsibility on the homeowners, Eveleth explained.
“The city budget is only $7 million a year for everything,” he added. “The estimated cost of this project in totality is $20 million. So, it’s a very big liability for us currently.”
Eveleth said he’s hopeful that the city will see some funding come its way from the newly signed infrastructure bill passed in Washington, DC. Michigan is set to receive funding to put toward replacing lead pipes where necessary and improving the overall water infrastructure across the state, ensuring that the water flowing from the faucets of families in every community is clean.
“Together with the infrastructure bill, millions of lives will be changed for the better,” President Joe Biden said of the bill when asked about it in November.
It remains to be seen how that money will be dispersed at the local level, but Eveleth remains hopeful.
“Our hope is that Lansing comes up with some equitable distribution, so that the cities that have gotten looked at by EGLE, which used to be called DEQ, will get a chunk of those funds in order to fund this,” he said. “Anything’s going to help. I would like $20 million, if the project’s going to cost $20 million, but whether or not that happens is a different story.”