Lame Ducks Punt Michigan Road Repair to Voters

Michigan voters will decide in May 2015 if they want to pay more for just about everything they buy in return for repairing some of the worst roads in the nation.

The Michigan Legislature has decided, rather than biting the bullet themselves, to ask voters to approve a proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow a 1 percent state sales tax increase on the May ballot, boosting the Michigan sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent.

However, the sales tax on the retail price of motor fuel would be dropped and converted to a tax based on wholesale prices, with floors and ceilings in place so fuel prices wouldn’t roller coaster up and down with wildly fluctuating fuel prices.

Changes in vehicle registration fees are also part of the 11-bill package that should bring in $1.3 billion in transportation funding. But it all hinges on a “yes” vote from Michigan residents in May.

While it took votes from Democrats to win approval for the legislation at 5:30 a.m. Dec. 19 in the GOP-controlled legislature, there was also bipartisan anger and disgust.

Sen. Coleman Young II (D) called the package “an act of political cowardice.” In the House, Rep. Tom McMillin (R) complained to the Detroit News that Republican leadership would not allow him to speak against the proposal.

From the outside looking in, Wes Nakagiri, the founder of RetakeOurGov who tried to unseat Michigan Lt. Governor Brian Calley during the 2014 Michigan GOP convention, blasted the plan.

“Lansing continues to shield its bloated spending and special interests while once again dipping into the wallets of hard-working Michigan taxpayers,” said Nakagiri, who also expressed his disappointment with fellow Republicans.

“With Republican control of state government, it is ridiculous that our legislative leaders chose not to reprioritize spending to fix our roads,” said Nakagiri. “It seems that the Nerd (Gov. Rick Snyder) and his legislative pals never met a tax they didn’t hike. If that’s not bad enough, the tax and spend crew in Lansing wants to tinker with our state constitution to facilitate their spending habit.”

Denise Donohue, the director of the County Road Association of Michigan, told PJ Media a solution is long overdue.

“The roads are in very tough shape. I think the public knows it,” she said. “People are willing to pay to drive on better roads.”

Michigan’s roads were bad going into the 2013-14 winter when Lake Michigan froze over for the first time in recent memory and a polar vortex held the state in a crushing, bone-chilling grip.

A National Weather Service review of that winter in Michigan published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that it was one of the coldest and snowiest on record.

But it wasn’t the worst.

What made it unusual was that it was so cold and so snowy for so (damn) long.

In the words of the report: “Rather, what was extremely unusual was the persistence of below and well below normal temperatures over a several month period that encompassed the climatologically coldest period of weather during the year.”

That didn’t do the roads any good. As bad as they were going into the winter, they were made even worse by the spring thaw that reduced roads to dental work rattling goat trails and opened potholes the size of craters that could swallow a sport utility vehicle.

“At one point every person in our office or their kids had a flat tire, a bent rim or some damage caused by road conditions,” Donohue said.

A national transportation lobby group, TRIP, released a study in January 2014 that showed Michigan motorists were paying an extra $357 dollars per year to fix damage done to their cars and light trucks by cracks and potholes in the roads.

Roads that are eligible for federal aid are rated with the PASER laser technology system. According to that, 82 percent of Michigan roads are in either fair or poor condition. Only 18 percent of Michigan roads eligible for federal aid are in good condition.

The roads really have not gotten any better since the spring in Michigan. But some work has been done thanks to the Michigan Legislature’s approval of two $115 million special road repair packages.

“However, we didn’t make a big dent in road conditions,” Donohue said.

One of the reasons Michigan is having trouble coming up with the money to fix its roads is that the state has not increased its tax on gasoline since 1997.

“I like to say that is when the Spice Girls were popular, and gasoline was $1.92 a gallon,” said Donohue. “It was not indexed to inflation and the 4 cents it was raised then is worth about 2 cents now when you account for inflation.”

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) didn’t get all of that 4-cent increase or even most of it. An MDOT study released in 2013 showed local governments received most of the gas tax increase.

As a result MDOT had to rely on bonds. Michigan has been forced to borrow nearly $1.5 billion for pavement and bridge preservation work.

MDOT officials also said Michigan motorists can thank the Obama administration’s onetime stimulus program for more than 28 percent of the road work that has been funded federally in the past six years.

But the days of borrowing are over. MDOT officials said the department is just under the ceiling set on its debt limit.

Here’s another problem: People are driving less, and when they do drive, they are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Good for the environment.

Bad for MDOT.

Gas tax revenue continues to decline in Michigan while debt service costs MDOT more than $220 million in principal and interest annually, and additional bonding is no longer possible.

State officials have also said MDOT faces a serious drop in its pavement budgets.

“As a result, conditions are forecast to decline rapidly for pavements and gradually for bridges,” the MDOT 2013 study said.

Even a liberal advocacy organization is on board with the need to fix Michigan roads.

“It is critical that our elected officials find a solution to provide adequate funding for Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure,” said Nathan Triplett, the project director of Priorities Michigan.

Michigan currently ranks the lowest in per capita spending on transportation infrastructure out of all 50 states.

Mike Nystrom, the executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, said Michigan can’t wait until the new legislature is seated in January.

“The time for delaying action is over,” Nystrom said. “Failure to address the problem today will only increase the cost of repairing the roads tomorrow. Winter and another spring pothole season are just around the corner.”

Will $1.2 billion be enough to repair all the roads in Michigan? Probably not.

Donohue said the County Road Association of Michigan believes $2.1 billion is needed to fix all of the roads in the state, but they can live with the Snyder administration’s $1.2 billion package.

“We welcome this governor continuing to keep roads front and center,” she said. “Voters elected the man with the plan, and now it is time to execute that plan.”