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Are we on a 'highway to gravel'?

May 8, 2013
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Are we on a highway to gravel?
MDOT said that repairs to Michigan highways will be negated without adequate transportation funding in the state budget. Photo via fb.com

West Michigan roads have hit a dead end.

State Rep. Rob VerHeulen told the Grand Valley Metro Council there is about $300 million available in new transportation funding. The Walker Republican, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Transportation, admitted that figure wasn’t nearly enough to cover the state’s road needs.

VerHeulen also said the GOP caucus doesn’t have a lot of support for Gov. Rick Snyder’s $1.2 billion plan that would raise the state’s gas tax from 19 cents to 33 cents a gallon and would hike the annual registration fee to a new high.

But the former Walker mayor said his constituents have told him they’re willing to pay more. “Almost without exception, people are saying we have to do something. I’m expecting we’re going to do something soon,” he said.

“I’ve heard very few people say, ‘Don’t fix it.’ People don’t want a Band-Aid solution,” he added. “Everyone says fix it and I think we will fix it.”

An option to the governor’s proposal is to raise the state’s sales tax by a penny to 7 percent — a move VerHeulen pointed out would require approval from voters.

“Representatives would prefer to allow voters to make the decision, rather than raise taxes,” he said.

Kent County Road Commission Managing Director Steve Warren told the board 34 percent of all the roads in the county are in poor shape, while 56 percent are in fair condition but on the brink of becoming poor.

“Without the dollars, we’re going to see an increase in poor roads,” he said.

Warren said the county has a backlog of road improvements that totals $429 million over 1,493 miles of roads.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen declining revenues from the state — declining steadily since 2004. And we got hit with a double whammy,” he said.

As state funding fell, Warren said prices for diesel fuel, road salt and asphalt rose. Over those 10 years, he said diesel has gone up by 300 percent, salt by 128 percent and asphalt by 91 percent. He said the road commission could use an additional $10 million annually to maintain and improve conditions.

“We have a plan and we’re prepared to go. We’ve run the scenarios. We’ve run the analysis. We’re ready to go,” said Warren.

GVMC Executive Director John Weiss said every legislator in the area has been provided with a list of road needs in their districts.

Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong told the council the city’s Sustainable Streets Task Force reported that just 8 percent of the city’s streets were in good shape; 63 percent were listed as poor and 29 percent were categorized as in fair condition.

The city has 588 miles of streets to maintain, and DeLong said the current conditions are a reversal from the situation 10 years ago — but in only three years, he said, conditions would get much worse. Eighty-one percent of the city’s streets will be in the poor category in 2016 if action isn’t taken before then.

“We have a situation where we need to begin investing now. If we do nothing, we’re on the highway to gravel,” he said. “We need to invest $22 million annually.”

To reach that yearly level of investment, DeLong said the city needs another $6 million from the state and it needs to have voters approve $9 million more in local funds.

“Infrastructure is forever. It’s not episodic,” he said.

Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Government Affairs Andy Johnston said his crew has met with 25 state legislators and tried to impress upon them the importance proper road funding plays for the private sector.

“We’re really not the organization that lobbies for tax increases,” he pointed out. “But we’re talking about how infrastructure supports economic development.”

GRACC Public Policy Coordinator Josh Lunger added that infrastructure not only supports an entire community, it also supports businesses.

“We’re communicating with our legislators that this is a very important issue,” he said.

West Michigan Policy Forum President Jared Rodriguez told the Business Journal one of his organization’s top three priorities is to get Lansing to convert its current road-funding mechanism into something long-term and sustainable. But Rodriguez felt lawmakers will eventually push the decision onto voters.

“Lansing has to make this decision,” said Michael Nystrom, president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association in Okemos, of the legislators’ responsibility.

“Don’t do something that is too small, like in 1997,” he said of the last year legislators raised the state’s gas tax from 15 to 19 cents a gallon.

Nystrom said the state needs $1.4 billion in funding each year for roads and bridges just to keep pace with other states. He called the governor’s proposal a conversation starter.

“Each year that nothing is done costs us $100 million,” said Nystrom. “You have to show (legislators) death, so pain and suffering is an option they’ll choose.”

VerHeulen told council members they should let Lansing lawmakers know what they want done.

“We have a common problem and I hope we can find a common solution. This isn’t a Republican problem. This isn’t a Democratic problem,” he said “It’s our problem.” 

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