The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 28, 2017

Report finds funding path too narrow for future good roads

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

It was true a decade ago, it was true in 2015 when the state Legislature improved transportation funding, and it’s true today: Michigan doesn’t spend nearly enough on maintaining its roads.

The latest evidence was handed down on April 4 in a 28-page report from TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based national transportation advocacy research organization.

The TRIP report, “Modernizing Michigan’s Transportation System: Progress and Challenges in Providing Safe, Efficient and Well-maintained Roads, Highways and Bridges,” finds that even with the additional transportation funding arranged two years ago – which is not fully guaranteed until beginning in 2019 – state pavement and bridge conditions will decline.” Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials have been saying the same thing for years.

In 2015, overwhelming public opinion finally convinced the state Republican-run Legislature to institute a $1.2 billion increase per year in road funding. But the funding was roundly criticized because it would not go into effect until many lawmakers’ terms of office had ended – and it provided only about half the money needed to significantly keep up with the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges.

“Michigan’s Legislature took an important step in 2015 towards improving the condition of the transportation system and setting the state backon the road to economic recovery,” said Will Wilkins, executive director of TRIP. “While that was a good start, numerous needed improvements remain unfunded. Adequate investment in Michigan’s transportation system is a critical component in the state’s economic comeback.”

To get to that $1.2 billion funding level, gas taxes were raised 7 cents, vehicle registration fees were hiked 20 percent, and $600 million was moved from the state’s General Fund into road repair. There was also plenty of uproar about how that money would be raised.

As a result of the 2015 funding increase, TRIP said total state spending for local roads and bridges, state roads and bridges and transit will increase from $2.2 billion in 2015 to nearly $3.4 billion in 2023. The legislation will provide a total of $4.2 billion in additional funding through 2023, but $2.3 billion of that is from the General Fund and is not guaranteed and will be distributed at the discretion of the legislature beginning in 2019.

Despite the recent infusion of funding, Michigan’s state-maintained roads and bridges are expected to continue to deteriorate over the next five years and beyond, with the share of lane miles in poor condition increasing from 20 percent in 2016 to 46 percent by 2020. MDOT estimates that based on available funding, the number of state-maintained bridges rated in poor condition will increase by 50 percent between 2016 and 2023.

“At the time the transportation funding package was approved in late 2015, legislative leaders acknowledged it was a good start toward addressing some of the needs in Michigan’s road and bridge system, but not all of them,” said a statement from MDOT. “It will help slow the decline, but not reverse it. We are not delaying projects, but there are many projects we’ve identified on our system statewide, we don’t yet have the resources we need to address them. The funding package will mean we’ll be able to address more needs than we could before, but there remains many more that will need to wait. We’ll continue to do the best we can with available funding, and keep our roads and bridges in as good condition as possible.”

Vehicle travel in Michigan has increased by 10 percent between 2013 and 2016 – the 11th highest rate of travel growth among states during this period. “To continue our economic growth, the industries that drive Michigan need a well-maintained and dependable infrastructure network,” said Josh Lunger, director of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “This report shows the significance of the 2015 transportation funding package, and how critical it is that the Legislature make these commitments a top priority.”

The state Legislature was roundly criticized for how the road spending package was structured, with just a small gas tax hike imposed at a time when gasoline prices have been relatively low, no additional fees on heavy trucks and the lack of guaranteed funding without legislative action down the road.

“If anyone deserves the blame for Michigan’s unsafe roads and bridges, it’s Governor Snyder and Lansing Republicans,” said Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO. “The roads package they passed two years ago made it more expensive to own a car by raising taxes and fees on working families, but didn’t require corporations to pay a single penny more to fix our crumbling infrastructure. That needs to change. If this report tells us anything, it’s that Michigan needs real solutions to fix our roads, not more gimmicks, and we can’t force regular families to shoulder the burden alone.”