The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 28, 2014

We're No. 50! Anti-tax ideologues put kibosh on new money for road work

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

In Michigan, what will come of the mash-up of brutal winter weather, growing public outrage over yawning potholes, desperately needed long-term road repair funding, a $1 billion state budget surplus in 2014 and election year politics?

Based on what’s happened in the past… not too much.

To his credit, Gov. Rick Snyder has agreed with the Michigan Department of Transportation, and has called for the Legislature to commit to a permanent, additional allocation of $1.2 billion in spending on state roads. For years, MDOT has called for at least that amount in annual additional road spending just to keep roads and bridges from getting worse. And with state lawmakers basically ignoring MDOT’s annual pleas for more funding and roads growing worse by the week, hundreds of millions of dollars beyond that $1.2 billion baseline request are going to be needed – for years to come.

And near-term, with rumors of springtime bringing an end to this horrible winter, the freeze-and-thaw cycle is about to make further rubble out of the state’s roads and bridge decks.

“This break-up that is going to happen in the next month is going to be horrendous,” said MDOT Director Kirk Steudle this month to the House Appropriations Committee. “I can pick a roadway in every corner of the state that is blowing apart and will be bad.”

Anyone who owns a car or truck knows that the state’s motorists are on an unavoidable collision course with potholes, but state lawmakers still haven’t found the political will to appropriate serious money to fix the roads. Vehicles are more fuel efficient and driving miles are down, so Michigan’s 19 cents a gallon gas tax (which hasn’t been raised since 1997) doesn’t go as far.

Proposals to increase road revenues have ranged from increasing the gas tax or the wholesale tax on gasoline, creating toll roads, raising registration fees, or putting a road repair tax hike on the ballot. None of those plans have moved forward, and in an election year, it gets even harder, especially with pressure from outside anti-tax groups.

Americans For Prosperity-Michigan, the state chapter of a national conservative advocacy group, last year staged a 13-stop jaunt around Michigan called the “Don’t Raise MI Taxes” tour. “Raising taxes on Michigan’s families shouldn’t even be an option on the table,” Director Scott Hagerstrom said. “It is time for state government to start living within its means, just as Michigan families have had to.”

The problem is, an additional $1.2 billion to improve roads simply can’t be obtained by belt-tightening.

“As it is we’re holding things together with duct tape and baling wire,” a frustrated Steudle told the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council last year. “Anyone who says we don’t have a problem isn’t looking at the facts.”

The Detroit News revealed earlier this month that Michigan by far spends the least per capita among the states on road work – $154 per person, about half the national average. We’re so bad that No. 49 is Colorado, and their per-capita spending is $201 – 30 percent higher!

When it became clear last month that Michigan had the one-time, $1 billion surplus to spend this year, everybody had their hand out, and rightfully so. The state has been de-funding education, and appropriations to cities and townships. Municipal pension obligations are busting local budgets. And high county road salt costs this season are eating into warm-weather maintenance budgets.

The Republican-dominated Michigan Legislature, of course, isn’t uninformed when it comes to the state of the state’s roads and bridges. A transportation study released in 2012 by a Republican and a Democratic lawmaker figured that Michigan would need to spend an additional $1.4 billion per year from 2012 through 2015, then nearly double that amount to $2.6 billion per year by 2023, in order to maintain a level of roads in “fair” condition.

As MDOT’s Steudle keeps pointing out, the lack of that billion dollar-plus per-year increase in transportation spending just keeps making future repairs more expensive.

Last year, Snyder proposed a $4.5 billion transportation budget for Fiscal Year 2014 that included an additional $1.2 billion for roads, to be raised through increases in gas taxes and vehicle registration taxes. The road money never got by Republican tax gatekeepers. They’re reluctant and averse to commit to anything that makes it looks as if they’re raising taxes, especially in an election year – or any other year.

That’s typified by House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) who non-comittally commented in January about road funding: “I’m not rejecting anything, but that’s not where I start.  I think voters have elected us to solve problems and I think they are counting on us to solve problems.”

Said State House Transportation Committee Chair Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) to the News: “Everybody wants good roads but nobody wants to pay for it.” Actually, there are plenty of people who don’t mind paying for good roads, but it would mean listening to them instead of ideologically based anti-tax groups. The cost to a motorist of replacing just a single bent rim or blown tire that has encountered a pothole negates any savings in not raising new road repair money.

Last week, the purse strings opened a bit, as the state Senate announced a proposal to inject $100 million into state, county, township and village road funds to help replenish their accounts for road salt and maintenance.

This year, according to MIRS News Service, Snyder proposed $3.6 billion in funding for transportation – a 1.9 percent increase – with no inclusion of the $1.2 billion or so that Steudel says is needed. More money would not only fix more roads, it would become an immediate economic stimulus for construction workers around the state. So the funding ball is in the court of the Legislature, and Republicans seem to be OK with only taking baby steps when it comes to road repairs.

“The problem is it is not enough,” said Rep. Andrew Kandrevas, to MIRS. He’s the minority vice chair of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee. “It’s a one-time solution. We have a systemic problem that cannot be solved with a one-time solution.”