2005-09-03 / Letters

Letters to the Editor

Clarifying Tower History

To the Editor:

In the otherwise welcome article on the Maritime Museum at Mission Point Resort (August 13-19), the reporter made one error in the tower's history that deserves clarification. The article stated that the tower “was constructed with the sound stage in the 1960s by Moral Re-Armament and was used as an observation tower.” In fact, according to the architect, the tower was added only as an “architectural flourish” to the massive sound stage. It was designed in glass for the purpose of East Bluff cottagers and visitors to see through it, not for those in it to see out. And according to many MRA members, it was never used as an observation tower, and only on rare occasions as a place for meditation gatherings.

Jim and Susan Lenfestey

East Bluff

MDOT, MBA Will

Work Together

To The Editor:

Over the last three years, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has taken a more active role in overseeing the operations and finances of the Mackinac Bridge, with the ultimate goal of keeping tolls low, ensuring that traffic flows smoothly across the bridge, and protecting the safety of the bridge and the people who use it. That role will result in the anticipated saving of almost $4,000,000 in taxpayer funds over the next fifteen years. Additionally, business practices have become more efficient, transparent and consistent, and security measures have been updated to meet the realities of the potential threats that confront major transportation assets nationwide.

This letter is written to clarify the actions taken by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to improve bridge operations and maintain accountability at the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA). Recent public descriptions of the last MBA meeting did not include the facts and business justifications that prompted the actions taken by the MDOT during the last three years, including the following:

1. The MBA board voted to hire a private investment firm to manage the $25 million of funds that will be used for a future reconstruction of the bridge's road surface. The board had been advised by the Attorney General's Office that only the State Treasurer had legal authority to manage the bridge's investments. The Authority's contract with this private company would pay this firm about $62,500 per year. MDOT and the State Treasurer determined that the State Treasurer - which invests more than $50 billion for all state agencies - could provide the same services for only $15,000 per year, a considerable savings over the board's private firm. Ten months after this change was made, several MBA board members have publicly stated that they are pleased with the State Treasurer's management of bridge investments.

2. The MBA board recently ordered Mackinac Bridge staff to hire a risk management firm to perform a $24,000 study to identify business risks at the bridge and determine insurance needs. The vendor selected by the board was suggested by one of the insurance brokers currently selling $250,000 of insurance coverage to the MBA. The board made no effort to determine if the price quoted for the study was reasonable, and there was no effort to competitively bid out this study. Subsequently, MDOT retained the Michigan Department of Management and Budget (DMB) at a cost of $2,000 to complete a thorough study of the risks the bridge faces and the insurance coverage the bridge should have, saving the Mackinac Bridge $22,000 of taxpayer funds.

3. The MBA board has been spending about $250,000 annually for insurance at the bridge. The results of the DMB review described above concluded that the bridge was paying for $4,500 of redundant and unnecessary insurance, paying $10,000 too much for auto insurance protection, and paying $130,000 for insurance coverage that should be self-insured to achieve additional savings (like all other State of Michigan agencies do). Rather than waste toll revenue on unnecessaryinsurance costs, MDOT implemented this cost savings plan to responsibly reduce the bridge's insurance costs and to keep tolls low.

4. The MBA board entered into an annual bridge inspection contract with a private engineering firm. The MBA had not been following standard state contract procedures and has been overpaying this firm by $15,000 per year. MDOT is in the process of recovering these overpayments and has instituted new procedures at the bridge to prevent future overpayments.

Some additional issues require clarification as well. Recent reports have stated that the Mackinac Bridge is completely self-sufficient and does not receive any state funds. In fact, the bridge has received substantial state support over the years, including more than $62 million in loan re-payment assistance. Without this state assistance, bridge tolls would be substantially higher today than the low tolls currently paid by bridge users ˆ including the 16% of bridge users who are regular commuters.

Following the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001, major bridges in the U.S. have elected to keep their inspection reports confidential, because they contain useful information for terrorists. This practice is now being followed at the Mackinac Bridge and is consistent with the current security practices of other similar bridges nationwide. The Mackinac Bridge is well-maintained and is in excellent condition, especially for a 50 year-old structure. The detailed findings of the report, however, are no longer discussed in public. Summary observations and conclusions about bridge conditions are still discussed in public settings.

The Mackinac Bridge is Michigan's premier transportation asset, and a vital economic, cultural and geographic link for all of Michigan and the upper Midwest. MDOT remains committed to working with the MBA and the Michigan Legislature to ensure the Bridge retains its pre-eminent status and that the MBA continues to be accountable to Michigan taxpayers.

Leon E. Hank, CPA

Chief Administrative Officer

Michigan Department of Transportation

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