Meet the Man Cashing Michigan’s Billion-Dollar Ticket to Fix the Damn State

By Kyle Kaminski

September 12, 2023

President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law marked the largest long-term infrastructure investment in nearly a century. In Michigan, there’s a whole office to help make sure the federal cash is spent on more than just fixin’ the damn roads.

MICHIGAN—About 18 months ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formed the Michigan Infrastructure Office and hired one man for what essentially amounted to one job: Ensure that Michigan gets more than its fair share of funding available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The federal legislation—which was signed by President Joe Biden in 2021—is sending billions of dollars across the country to repair roads and bridges, replace lead service lines, expand high-speed internet connectivity, build electric vehicle charging networks, and much more.

And after working to secure more than $7.3 billion in federal funding to support more than 500 projects across the state, Michigan’s Chief Infrastructure Officer Zachary Kolodin said his office’s work to slice off a larger wedge of the federal pie for Michigan is still far from finished.

Last week, Kolodin sat down with The ‘Gander to talk about the significant progress his office has made in wrangling federal infrastructure funding into Michigan over the last 18 months—and it turned into a wide-ranging interview about all things infrastructure in Michigan.

Here’s the full interview, which has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity:

Why did Michigan need a whole new office just for infrastructure? 

Before the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was passed, we had infrastructure week. 

Since then, every week is infrastructure week.

Gov. Whitmer looked across state government and saw that we needed to adapt to better manage these resources. My office was created to help direct those federal infrastructure resources toward the most critical infrastructure projects in the most efficient way possible. 

Across the state, all kinds of entities have capacity challenges when it comes to accessing new federal dollars. We work with local governments, businesses, nonprofits—really anyone who is eligible for federal dollars—to help them get as much out of those federal resources as possible.

We do have the Department of Transportation, which is in charge of roads and bridges. The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy manages our water funds. The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity helps us to solve workforce challenges.

But together, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act represent a $30-40 billion opportunity for the state of Michigan. The state government is set up to provide the services, but this infusion of federal cash has created a sudden opportunity. There simply wasn’t the capacity to capture every dollar that was available. 

This isn’t a circumstance that’s going to last forever. This office is designed to provide temporary help—surge capacity for state departments—in a way that’s flexible and as efficient as possible. 

Along the way, we’re also tracking whether we’re setting appropriately ambitious goals. We want to make sure that Michigan gets its fair share and that the money is deployed effectively. 

So, infrastructure isn’t the most exciting topic out there—

That’s not true.

Let me rephrase that: When infrastructure is working properly, it tends to go unnoticed. Do you think it’s difficult to get Michiganders to understand and care about the importance of infrastructure?

No. I think people understand the importance of infrastructure in their lives. 

The governor ran on an infrastructure platform, right? “Fix the Damn Roads.”

And that’s because people notice. You notice when infrastructure is not working, and they also notice when it’s changing. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help us make a dent in the maintenance challenges that every state is facing when it comes to aging infrastructure. 

And hopefully people notice that—in the quality of their roads, in the clean water. 

I also hope they notice when infrastructure changes to adapt to changes in society. We all know that we need to change how we use our energy to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. 

What makes you excited about infrastructure?

It’s the stuff that enables us to live the way that we want to live. Infrastructure is at the core of what makes people decide to live in Michigan—the belief that they can invest in a house and in their business, and raise children here knowing that they’re safe. That’s first and foremost. 

High-quality transportation infrastructure and good transportation design is essential for keeping people safe. But it’s not just roads and public transportation. It’s important that the water coming out of your tap is safe. These are all things that are fundamentally important to public health.

Then, there’s the invisible infrastructure. You’re probably not going to see the solar panels getting built, but infrastructure also involves changes to the way energy is supplied to your household—things that enable a more sustainable lifestyle and meet the climate challenge.

We don’t yet have all of the tools that we need as a country to produce low-cost, clean energy at the scale that we need. We also don’t yet have the tools to run our transportation systems and industrial systems on those clean energy sources. But we are getting there, and we are very close. When those sources are ready to go, we need to already have the infrastructure ready.

Michigan has received more than $7.3 billion in federal infrastructure funding as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—which has since been earmarked for more than 500 different projects. Help me understand the context here. What sort of impact will that cash have?

When it comes to certain types of infrastructure like high-speed internet, where we’ve not previously seen these massive investments, it’ll make an enormous difference. Connecting hundreds of thousands of people who lack internet access to the internet is a real game changer. We’ll be able to connect nearly every household in Michigan to high-speed internet. 

We’re also getting $110 million for electric vehicle infrastructure. That means we’ll have chargers every 50 miles along our alternative fuel corridors—which are basically the roads that take you everywhere you’ll need to travel to access every corner of the state. That’s a big deal.

How many electric vehicle chargers does Michigan really need?

High-speed chargers every 50 miles is likely the minimum needed to give people the confidence to take long car trips in their electric vehicles. That doesn’t mean that’s the full vision for EV infrastructure in the state. We also need to have low-cost options for charging that aren’t necessarily fast-charging options—for people to charge up while they’re working or shopping. If you live in an apartment building, same deal. You should have access to overnight charging. 

More broadly than that, we will also need to have charging infrastructure distributed to private households. Right now, folks are plugging their EVs into their garages. But the eventual vision is that you’ll be able to charge your car using solar energy generated in your own community

At the end of the day, we don’t really know exactly how many chargers we’ll need. The market will take over. This investment is getting us to the point where the market for EVs will be viable enough for widespread adoption, which will also create opportunities for more charging stations.

Do you own and drive an electric vehicle?

Yes. I own a Mustang Mach-E with my wife, and we also have a plug-in hybrid for longer trips.

Just to be clear: There’s nothing wrong with owning a fuel-efficient, non-electric vehicle.

What sorts of things are you hearing from Michiganders about our infrastructure? Are people starting to feel more optimistic about it?

People are getting used to seeing orange barrels wherever they go. I think people notice that the highways and the major trunklines are improving and that the work is getting done. 

That construction isn’t just limited to our roads, either. People are seeing that we’re winning more projects like the Nel Hydrogen project near Detroit or the Our Next Energy project in Van Buren Township. I think folks are feeling more optimistic because they’re seeing momentum. 

What part of the job have you found most fulfilling or exciting so far? 

On a personal level, the best part of the job is learning about new industries and learning about the ways that infrastructure is changing, and how Michigan is headed in the right direction. 

How do you go about ensuring federal infrastructure funding is allocated in an equitable manner across Michigan, and that you’re not neglecting any pockets of the state that need some attention?

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is already handing out dollars in a formulaic way—not necessarily based on population, but by their characteristics. We have to follow the rules on how to distribute it, which also includes some criteria to ensure the funding is spent equitably.

With the high-speed broadband money, for instance, we have to make sure that funding first goes to areas with low download speeds. With transportation money, we use a state formula. We have built-in mechanisms to ensure that the money is distributed equitably.

Then, there’s competitive dollars—and not every community is in an equally good position to win those competitive dollars. That’s why we’ve set up programs like the Technical Assistance Center, to recognize that some entities will need extra support to get their projects over the finish line. We want folks in all communities to be able to benefit from these federal dollars. 

Infrastructure often works behind the scenes. Are there any “unsung heroes,” so to speak, or lesser known projects that your office has supported that you think will make a significant impact in Michigan?

The Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians is a perfect example of a rural community thinking about its needs and being proactive. They received a $19.8 million grant to fund the Ozhitoon Mino-Bimaadiziwin Project, which translates to “Build for a Good Life.” It’s a multi-modal project that will improve traffic safety and bike and pedestrian connections across Sault Ste. Marie. 

The city of Kalamazoo has also won some interesting competitive grants—one to convert one-way streets into two-way streets, and another to improve pedestrian infrastructure. Those are two separate programs using two different funding streams, but they compliment each other. Both should have really positive effects on downtown Kalamazoo over the next few years.

Another one: A nonprofit called JustAir recently received funding through the Inflation Reduction Act to install air quality monitors in Michigan. If a kid has an asthma attack, they’ll be able to pull data from nearby air quality monitors to find out more about what was going on at the time—the idea being to accurately assess the risks and use the data to help mitigate them in the future. 

What about in terms of innovation? Tell me about the most cutting edge infrastructure projects that are totally unique to Michigan. 

I am sure people are getting used to their cars having computers in them, but that innovation is actually moving really quickly. Those computers are getting better, and more of the capital and investment associated with making a car goes into manufacturing that software every year. 

If Michigan is not at the forefront of designing those systems, we will lose more and more of the automotive industry over time to other parts of the country, or even to other places like Taiwan and China—which have both seen some enormous gains in the semiconductor industry

The Regional Technology and Innovation Hub Program—which was funded through President Joe Biden’s CHIPS and Science Act—is helping us to secure those investments in Michigan. 

Name three upcoming infrastructure projects that are going to have the biggest impact on the daily lives of the most Michiganders?

That’s hard because most projects are not necessarily designed to impact the largest number of people. But I think everyone will notice when every household in Michigan has access to high-speed internet. I think people will notice that we’re rebuilding all of the most heavily traveled roadways in the state. But with other important things, like access to clean drinking water, folks across Michigan are going to see the benefits without ever knowing it’s happening.

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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