The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 01, 2015

Study vouches for state's lousy roads, Proposal 1 offers path to long-term fix

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

Just in time for a vote on Proposal 1, the May 5 ballot issue that will determine if voters want to allocate more money to repair Michigan's roads, a nonprofit Washington D.C.-based transportation research group called TRIP is making sure voters are masters of the obvious. That is, our roads are in terrible condition, repair work is sorely under-funded, and the potholes will continue until more money is found to do the work.

In its report dated April 2015, TRIP found that in the state that put the nation on wheels, only 17 percent of Michigan's roads are currently in "good" condition. That left 45 percent in "fair" condition and 38 percent of Michigan roads with a "poor" rating. The percentage of major roads in Michigan that are in poor condition increased by 15 percentage points from 2006. And, the number of structurally deficient bridges is expected to increase from 12 to 14 percent by 2023.

The numbers add up to a situation where the roads are now becoming a liability for attracting and keeping people and business. "The state’s economic recovery is threatened by Michigan’s inability to address its transportation challenges," TRIP said. "These challenges include deteriorating roads, highways and bridges, a lack of adequate traffic safety features, a lack of transportation facilities to support economic growth and quality of life, and a lack of adequate financial resources to address the state's transportation challenges."

Michigan is “one of the worst states across the country” in terms of pavement conditions, said Rocky Moretti, TRIP's director of policy and research.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has been spreading the word for years that Michigan needs at least $1.2 billion in additional revenue - and because of the delays, likely more - to bring the condition of the state's roads somewhere close to average. TRIP, which researches, evaluates and distributes economic and technical data on surface transportation issues, did not address the political environment in Michigan which has led to the lack of road funding increases.

Michigan's lawmakers haven't allocated any new money to pay for road improvements since the gasoline tax was last raised in 1997. While Gov. Rick Snyder has made it a top priority to increase road funding, in recent years, the Tea Party has stiffened the anti-tax resolve of conservative state lawmakers, who have been simply unwilling to vote on any tax increase. In fact, there is still a large contingent of Republican lawmakers who believe that an additional $1.2 billion can be permanently chopped out of the state's existing $9.5 billion general fund budget and allocated to road work.

Late last year, Republican lawmakers nearly came up with a plan to raise the wholesale gasoline tax to raise the money, but the anti-tax crowd won out, and Proposal 1 emerged as a compromise only a cowardly politician could love.

Michigan voters will be offered the opportunity to raise the state sales tax from six cents to seven cents, and allocate about $1.2 billion more to funding state road work in the next few years via the May 5 statewide ballot proposal. That same ballot proposal would also restore cuts in education, improve revenue sharing to local communities, and move more money to the working poor through the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The proposal also builds in strong warranties for road work, making contractors accountable. Fees for heavy trucks will increase. It will also put to work, permanently, more than 13,000 tradespeople.

“Michigan drivers have a unique opportunity to address our deficient roads and bridges in a few weeks,” said Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan, to the Detroit Free Press. “Proposal 1 will add $1.2 billion to road funding, and it will be constitutionally dedicated to roads. We won’t fully recover from our current band-aid approach to roads for several years, but passing Proposal 1 puts us on the right path.”

Proposal 1's prospects at the ballot box are dim, according to most polls. The main reason cited by people opposed to the ballot measure: it's too complicated. "Way too many add-ons for what the money will be spent on," said one commenter on the Michigan Building Trades Facebook page. Said another: "Voting no. Let's have a clean bill to vote on rather than Snyder smoke and mirrors."

Said another: "I'm voting NO because I believe the lame Republican legislators should own up to the need for $$ to be raised by taxes and not pass it off as a vote of the people. They can then once again say that they don't approve of raising taxes and we all know that is what must be done."

TRIP's Moretti said “I think the real question is, if they don't do it, what happens? I think that would lead to further deterioration.”

Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, acknowledged the shortcomings of Proposal 1. But he said any alternative cure may be worse than the disease, with renewed focus on repealing the state's prevailing law.

"We're completely aware there's a strong sentiment against Proposal 1," Devlin said, "and we get it. Proposal 1 doesn't put people to work immediately. It does things that are not related to roads. It doesn't take the heavy trucks off the roads. Ideally, probably the money should come from a tax on gas, rather than on the sale tax.

"But the state's political environment has laid Proposal 1 on our lap. Take it or leave it. And I'm afraid if the voters leave it, and Proposal 1 loses, the ultra-conservative lawmakers who run the show in Lansing may take the voters' lead and choose to do nothing about the roads. Or worse, they chop money out of the education budget to pay for road work. And it's very likely that they're going to want to use repeal of the state's prevailing wage law as a bargaining chip with Gov. Snyder, to get him to go along with whatever they come up with. Proposal 1 isn't perfect. But I can't see the alternatives being any better."