Guest Column

Legislature accelerates road funding package

May 30, 2014
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Transportation in Michigan is at a momentous — but potholed — crossroads.

Michigan roads have been pounded by nearly two decades of underfunding, capped by an epic winter. Deteriorating roads and an unusually deep frost led to an enormous crop of potholes.

In too many cases that frosty block of ice was holding the road together. When it melted, the unstable ground gave out, pavement buckled and sinkholes appeared.

Today, any gathering of five or six people includes someone with a personal story of a flat tire, bent rim, busted wheel or a windshield broken by debris from Michigan’s potholed roads. According to the study released May 19 by the Michigan Chamber, 95 percent of voters are concerned that road conditions will damage their vehicles.

Already the average Michigan driver incurs over $300 in repairs annually caused by crumbling roads and bridges. That doesn’t count the hassle factor that accompanies a disabled vehicle.

Michigan’s 83 county road agencies are balanced on the razor’s edge: We have a responsibility to our neighbors, friends and communities to maintain safe travelling conditions, yet the road funds are greatly diminished.

County road agencies understand motorists’ outrage over road conditions all too well. We’ve been on the front lines trying to fix roads and bridges on a shoestring while taking calls from exasperated motorists.

Michigan road workers have been forced to make a series of “worst first” fixes to roads — which we know won’t last very long — simply to fill a dangerous pothole, crack or sinkhole. We’d rather prioritize the “right fix at the right time” and take care of the most important roads first.

When the public points to apparent higher-quality roads in Ohio or Pennsylvania, there are really five simple reasons Michigan roads have fared worse:

  • Every year $1 billion motorists pay at the pump does not go to roads. Michigan’s pending transportation package fixes that flaw, dedicating all state sales taxes on fuel not constitutionally dedicated to schools and revenue sharing back to roads.
  • Michigan hasn’t had a gas tax increase since 1997. That increase was 4 cents per gallon, now worth about 2 cents. Meantime, gasoline for plow trucks and asphalt for road repairs have become exponentially more expensive. The pending bills advanced by House Speaker Jace Bolger fix that fundamental flaw with a percentage tax that automatically adjusts to future gas prices.
  • A decade-long recession resulted in motorists driving less and paying less gas tax.
  • Today’s vehicles are more fuel efficient, meaning less gas tax is paid.
  • Finally, many of this country’s roads, highways and bridges were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. They are simply aging beyond their intended service life.

The first four items have pulled funds away from Michigan roads to the point that we now rank dead last in road funding per resident. Only 18 percent of Michigan roads are in “good” condition; one in eight bridges is structurally deficient (not necessarily unsafe, yet).

When motorists point to Ohio roads and say Ohio gas costs the same but the roads are much better, it is largely because of the first two points. Ohio dedicates all taxes on fuel to roads, and the revenue has increased over time. Ohio has invested $1 billion more in roads annually than Michigan for 20 years. 

Legislators are now responding to Michigan road conditions and taking action to generate a holistic funding solution. Let’s hope this package is in the neighborhood of $2.1 billion to $2.5 billion, and that it’s completed soon.

The fact is, a partial funding solution will still leave a significant chunk of bad roads.

Pennsylvania, which has a comparable number of frost-thaw cycles, similar-size population and road miles, and a similar make-up in the Legislature, passed a $2.3 billion road funding bill last fall. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, Deputy Executive Transportation Secretary Bradley Mallory and many others demonstrated leadership on the issue. They pushed ahead to achieve a phased-in funding package to invest in infrastructure by adjusting their wholesale oil and gas franchise fee.

Michigan’s elected officials should be heartened by the results: The package passed. Gov. Corbett saw a bump in his poll numbers and not a single sitting Pennsylvania legislator lost his or her seat due to passage of road funding.

Pennsylvanians saw the transportation package as a sign of renewed bipartisanship and leadership. The same will be true in Michigan, which is halfway down the road with a bipartisan transportation funding package.

Michigan didn’t get to this fork in the road overnight and getting out of it will take a few years. But the good news is the Michigan Legislature has taken bipartisan action to provide more road funding.

Boldly identifying a funding solution to fix our roads is exactly the ticket we need punched before the Legislature heads back to their districts for the summer.

Denise Donohue is director of the County Road Association of Michigan in Lansing.

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