State lawmakers don't have answer for transpo needs

June 14, 2009
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The drive to have state lawmakers come up with new methods to fund transportation upgrades by July 4 has stalled, and may have even run out of gas weeks before the holiday recess.

“Nothing is going on,” said Don Stypula, executive director of the Grand Valley Metro Council. “I’m just not seeing anything coming out of Lansing.”

Stypula made those comments last week after he returned from a hearing legislators held in Lansing on selecting new sources to pay for road and bridge fixes and public transit. But some of the conversation he heard left him feeling less than optimistic that these elected officials will get the job done over the next few weeks.

Stypula said one lawmaker asked Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle why his agency hadn’t taken any action to protect legislators who will vote to raise taxes for transportation. He said another lawmaker asked why the state can’t use the federal stimulus dollars every year for road work.

“I’m seeing fear,” said Stypula.

Lawmakers have 13 bills to choose from to replace the current 19-cent per-gallon gas tax that Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants discarded because she said the levy doesn’t provide the state with enough revenue to match federal transportation grants. Those bills came from the funding recommendations made by a statewide task force put together by Granholm.

After meeting for most of last year, the task force said the state should tax the wholesale price of fuel, raise the fee for vehicle registrations and give counties a few taxing options to come up with revenue to fund local projects.

The Metro Council supports the findings issued by the task force and has been working with other groups to get lawmakers to take action on the bills.

“There is widespread agreement that supporters have only until the summer legislative recess to move the package through the House and Senate and to the governor’s desk. Any effort after that will be mired in election-year politics,” said Stypula.

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the state’s infrastructure a grade of D, a mark that was a bit higher than Birgit Klohs expected.

“I’m surprised it’s a D, quite frankly,” said Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place Inc., the region’s nonprofit economic development agency.

“There are basic building blocks of economic development without which I can’t do my job. Nobody can. And one of those is infrastructure: water, sewer, roads, ports, rail, Internet access. Whether you transport talent up the (Michigan Street) hill or whether you transport goods to Montana, you have to have good infrastructure,” she added.

Klohs said the state has ignored the condition of its infrastructure over the past few years, and she acknowledged that Michigan’s terrible economy has been a key factor in why it has gotten worse. But she also said the state hasn’t raised its gas tax in a long time, and failing to do that has contributed to the dismal situation.

Klohs said she fully knows that lawmakers don’t want to raise taxes, but she said the state has to do something.

“We have to decide in the state what we want to look like,” she said. “Now and again, we drive the roads before we take a prospect out to see where the fewest potholes are. It’s a critical issue, and when you bring somebody here, it leaves an impression, good or bad. It’s no different than if you have a good or bad work force.”

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