2005-08-27 / Top News

MDOT Director Challenges Mackinac Bridge Authority

By Karen Gould

A view of the Mackinac Bridge from Bridge View Park in St. Ignace.
A view of the Mackinac Bridge from Bridge View Park in St. Ignace.

The long-standing responsibilities of the Mackinac Bridge Authority are being challenged by Gloria Jeff, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, who is basing her reasoning on an Attorney General’s opinion she is keeping to herself. She also advised the authority at its August meeting that matters of engineering inspections and insurance will now be controlled by MDOT. Bridge inspection reports will no longer be shared with the Authority, except in summary, she said. Last year, Ms. Jeff moved approximately $25 million from the Bridge Authority to the state treasury.

Ms. Jeff sits on the Mackinac Bridge Authority by virtue of her responsibility as director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. In a sometimes-tense Mackinac Bridge Authority meeting on Mackinac Island Friday, August 12, she had the bridge survey report removed from the agenda and challenged board action to buy insurance for the bridge, stating MDOT would not appropriate the funds and that board members would be personally liable if they proceeded with the plan. MDOT wants the Mackinac Bridge to be self-insured.

“Her taking over the board’s power completely eliminates the past practices of every other highway commission since the Bridge was built, and it eliminates the positive contribution and independent views the Bridge Authority brings,” said former board member Thomas Guastello, who is a former Michigan state representative and a state senator. He attended the August 12 meeting as a citizen.

Ms. Jeff, as a department head, reports to Governor Jennifer Granholm.

A year ago, Ms. Jeff moved $25 million that was being invested by the Authority to the State Treasurer. Her reasoning was that the State Treasurer is the treasurer of the Bridge Authority. “She just moved the money over,” said Bridge Authority Chairman Bill Gnodtke.

The Bridge is completely self-funding and MDOT does not supply funds for the bridge, according to Mr. Gnodtke. The Authority funds bridge maintenance and employee wages and benefits.

“It is absolutely 100 percent self-sufficient,” he said.

The Authority, with its independent status from state departments, defined in statutes as a Type One Transfer, has benefited from relative independence from the political pressures of state budgets. The Authority is a bipartisan board whose members are appointed by the Governor for six year terms and has operated under a congenial, but somewhat autonomous, relationship with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Now, Ms. Jeff, armed with an Attorney General’s opinion she will not make public, wants to greatly diminish the authority of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, say some present and former board members, and move most decision making to Lansing and the Department of Transportation.

“My real fear is this will put the Bridge in the same predicament as it has put Michigan roads, which are the third worst in the United States,” said Mr. Guastello.

“We can keep butting heads on this,” Ms. Jeff told the Authority on Mackinac Island, standing firm in her jurisdiction. “I understand that there are members of the board who disagree with the statement of the Attorney General and don’t believe the Attorney General is right in saying that there was a change in the status of the Mackinac Bridge Authority. It is not an independent entity and is part of the executive branch of state government. In that capacity, the Department of Transportation has a responsibility for operation and maintenance.”

“The AG opinion being referred to frequently is an internal MDOT document,” Bob Felt later told The Town Crier . Mr. Felt is a Communications Specialist for MDOT. “There are no plans to share it publicly,” he said.

Mr. Guastello is not impressed. “Informal opinions are not binding,” he said, “and she uses it for a power grab. If she’s so confident in the opinion, why isn’t she releasing it? She has a unique interpretation different from every other MDOT director for the last 50 years.”

While hesitant to stir the pot in public two weeks ago on Mackinac Island, Authority members have become more outspoken as the ramifications of Ms. Jeff’s actions sink in. Near the end of the August 12 meeting, the MDOT director had proposed a retreat in which she and other board members could work on building a better relationship and understanding with the help of a facilitator, but Chairman Gnodtke said he and board member Murray Wikol would poll other members first, to get a consensus as to how the confrontations would be resolved.

“It is our intention to continue to operate as we have, and we are not going to back off on the business of the Authority,” he said this week. “Individual members on the Authority have expressed a willingness and interest in exploring ways to re-establish the historical role of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.”

“I think it is a bureaucratic power grab on the part of Gloria Jeff,” said Jon “Jack” LaSalle of Marquette, former 10-year Authority member who later spoke with The Saint Ignace News . When Mr. LaSalle was appointed to the Authority for the first time in 1986, he said, he was told by long-time Chairman Charles Fisher that the board isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. Mr. Fisher told him the board was there to look after the Bridge. Mr. LaSalle said, during his tenure, he has never seen partisanship as a factor in the board’s decision-making process or in board member relationships.

Mr. LaSalle said Ms. Jeff told him last December that the Authority would be responsible for decisions regarding raising, lowering, or leaving Bridge fares as is, and nothing else. He said several governors have looked at the autonomous structure of the Mackinac Bridge Authority and decided they would leave it as it was.

“The Mackinac Bridge is not just a five mile road,” said Mr. LaSalle. “It’s a very special road with unique aspects. The board was assigned to protect it.”

“I’ve heard nothing out of Governor Graholm’s office,” he continued. “As far as I know, this is a Gloria Jeff thing.” He said he asked Ms. Jeff what problem she was attempting to fix by forcing the change in responsibility, but he never got an answer.

“I think that this is an error that comes from MDOT, not the Governor’s office,” he opined. “Ultimately, it will have to be rectified by the Governor.”

Leaving some room for reflection, Governor Granholm’s press secretary, Elizabeth Boyd, had the following to say Tuesday, August 23, when asked for a comment: “The Mackinac Bridge is a Michigan treasure and, at the end of the day, we know everyone wants to do what’s best for the bridge and the state of Michigan.”

Chairman Gnodtke likened the current relationship between the Mackinac Bridge Authority and Ms. Jeff to a marriage where the wife has the checkbook and the husband as the bank balance. The husband won’t tell the wife how much is in the account, and she won’t tell her husband what checks she has written.

At the August 12 board meeting, Ms. Jeff pulled the annual engineering survey report from the agenda and told the Authority that a summary of the report would be made available to Authority members at her discretion. Representatives of the company contracted for the survey, which inspects the bridge for structural soundness, were told not to attend the meeting. Such matters were of no concern to the Authority, she said.

Her office later told The Town Crier the decision is based on security concerns relating to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Reports have been made available to the Authority and the public since the attacks and up until this year.

Ms. Jeff told the MBA that, as the state transportation director, she is responsible for the oversight of the Mackinac Bridge. She referred to the unspecified Attorney General opinion about responsibilities of the board as the basis for her instruction that the bridge inspection report be removed from the meeting’s agenda.

“The issue of the physical condition of the Bridge is an operational item that MDOT has responsibility for,” she said. “It is our opinion that we will provide you with information on the condition of the physical situation, but it is our discretion on who and how that occurs.”

She noted that she was speaking as a member of the board and also as the director of the Department of Transportation.

Mr. Felt, the MDOT communications specialist, said, “The MBA board is well aware of all of the concerns regarding the Bridge since September 11.” He said the inspection reports are not read publicly and they cannot be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act for security reasons. “The bridge is a high profile operation; to ensure a safe and secure crossing, again, that information will not be shared, nor has it been openly discussed recently,” he said.

Last year during the August meeting on Mackinac Island, the inspection report was presented to the board.

In April, the Authority was given a report on Insurance Risk Assessment by the Department of Management and Budget with the recommendation that the Authority set up a restricted self-insurance fund by setting aside $200,000 annually, which is approximately the same amount the Authority was paying in premiums for insurance coverage annually. For small losses, the Authority could use the restricted fund. For large losses that exceed the fund’s balance, MDOT would reimburse the Authority with general road and bridge funds. This recommendation was based on the loss history of the Authority being low.

Current insurance policies expire September 1. The insurance assessment revealed there was some dual coverage and, through self-insurance, the Authority could save more than $220,000 before the annual contribution to the self-insurance fund.

During a June 17 insurance committee meeting, Authority Chairman Gnodtke asked for a document that obligates MDOT to make up any shortfall in the Authority’s self-insured fund. The letter was expected to be ready by the August Mackinac Island meeting, but it was not, and that proved to be a stumbling block for the board during the meeting.

“I’m not adverse to going self-insured as long as I have a comfort level,” said Mr. Gnodtke at the meeting. He said he had not yet seen the letter assuring the board that MDOT would reimburse the Authority for losses above the fund’s balance. Therefore, the board voted to renew its insurance coverage for one year with the Dobson and McOmber Agency of Ann Arbor and the Cheeseman Agency of St. Ignace. Ms. Jeff and Board member Patrick Gleason voted against the renewal.

Possibly anticipating the vote outcome, Ms. Jeff told the Authority in April that any action taken at the August meeting to remain commercially insured would be considered advisory. She reiterated that before and after the vote Friday.

“This will be viewed as advisory,” Ms. Jeff said after the vote. “The department at this time will not execute a contract. So, if there is a signature by a member of the board, the board personally by their member signing will have the financial responsibility and not the department. The department will not assign nor cover any costs associated with the action.”

Ms. Jeff said insurance is an administrative function and is the responsibility of the state transportation director, not the Authority. Mr. Felt later told The Saint Ignace News , “She is currently looking into getting the best insurance coverage possible in order to save money for the citizens of Michigan. After her analysis is complete, more specific information regarding the insurance may be available. The MBA Board has had insurance for many years. With the state's buying power, if you will, comparable coverage can be purchased at a cost savings. Gloria Jeff, in her role as state transportation director, will provide oversight to bridge operations, of which insurance is part.”

Once everything is firmed up, she will be in contact with the Mackinac Bridge Authority regarding the status of insurance for the Mackinac Bridge, he said.

During the Business Plan Projections report, Bridge Secretary Robert Sweeney said staff members recommended no adjustment be made in the bridge toll, and the Authority will keep the rate at $2.50 per car, $2 per axle for motor homes, and $3 per axle for all other vehicles.

The board considered budget projections from Ms. Jeff that predicts bridge traffic will increase by one percent a year, though traffic has been declining over the last five years. Board members expressed serious concerns over the projections, but Ms. Jeff said justification for the revenue projections is that economic activity in the Upper Peninsula is projected by Lansing to increase.

Bridge crossings continue on a downward trend, with July at 0.6 percent fewer crossings than July 2004, and 1.2 percent fewer crossings overall from January through July compared to last year, reported Mike Litzner, chief financial officer. Mr. Litzner estimated the traffic drop to be around five percent in the last five years. Vice Chair Elisa Schaller said the believes the loss in traffic has occurred with the establishment of downstate casinos.

A three-year, $18 million contract between two companies to paint the Bridge is on schedule and within budget and scheduled to be completed by December 2006. Kim Nowack, chief engineer, said the project is about 50 percent completed.

Ms. Nowack gave a presentation on other maintenance projects being performed to maintain the bridge, which is subject to corrosion from water and runoff debris. She said the main cable will be painted with a new, flexible product that was tested two years ago. They also are replacing five to six gratings each year, she said.

Mr. Sweeney said the automatic toll lanes for commuters that require either a pre-paid transponder, micro-chip card, or tokens are increasing in popularity, with about 16 percent of bridge traffic being commuters. There are 276,500 tokens in circulation that appear to have become collector items, as approximately 230 bridge tokens do not come back into inventory every day, he said. About 80 percent of commuters prefer the tokens over cards, Mr. Sweeney reported.

In other business, Lieutenant Curt Robertson, the commander of the St. Ignace Post of the Michigan State Police, told the Authority that troopers have issued 108 traffic citations and 121 verbal warnings on the bridge this year and have made 12 arrests. There had been four traffic crashes on the bridge, he said. The motor security officers have made 433 inspections, screened 4,838 trucks, and issued 454 warnings.

Also during the meeting, the upcoming Labor Day Bridge Walk was discussed.

Ms. Jeff said the largest celebration marking MDOT’s 100 year anniversary would take place during the Labor Day weekend and include a fireworks display over the Mackinac Bridge. Ms. Jeff will participate in the Bridge Walk Monday, September 6.

MDOT also is working with Michigan Air National Guard to have a fly over during the Labor Day Bridge Walk at approximately 8:30 a.m. and, on the second pass, the planes would tip their wings to the walkers.

In conjunction with the Bridge Walk, Mr. Sweeney said last year a wind monitoring device was installed at White Shoals Lighthouse, 20 to 30 miles west of the bridge. This provides the Bridge with wind speeds before they reach the Bridge and will allow the Authority to delay the walk if winds become dangerous.

On Tuesday, August 2, the Authority received a reading at the Lighthouse of 60 mile per hour winds, yet wind speeds were calm at the Mackinac Bridge, he said. This information allowed them to advise maintenance crews to stop work and set up lane closures for high profile vehicles. He said there are plans to install another warning device at Bois Blanc Lighthouse to the east in the future.

Mr. Sweeney said that he has been meeting with Governor Jennifer Granholm’s staff to coordinate activities for the Bridge Run to be held just before the walk. He said 350 runners, selected a random, will take part, including 26 state employees.

The Bridge Authority has contracted 111 buses to transport walkers and approximately 200 National Guard troops will help monitor walkers along the Bridge, he said.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority Board is composed of seven members appointed by the Governor, except for Ms. Jeff, who serves as the state transportation director. Other board members include Chairman William Gnodtke, Vice-chair Elsa Schaller, Angelo Lanni, Murray Wikol, Patrick Gleason, and Barbara Brown.

The next scheduled Authority meetings are November 1 and 2 in Detroit, March 9 and 10 in Lansing, and June 15 and 16 on Mackinac Island.

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