Road funds debate continues
LANSING (AP) – The drive to patch up Michigan’s deteriorating roads is largely centered on money, how to win support from skeptical lawmakers for at least $1.2 billion a year in additional taxes and fees for needed upkeep.
But hardly any attention is being paid to a related issue: how that cash should be divvied up.
As a start, Gov. Rick Snyder proposes to keep funding for state and local road agencies roughly the same as in the last budget. The bulk of new revenue – $1.1 billion – would go to a new Commercial Corridor Fund, which in turn would pass along additional funding to the road agencies.
Though the Republican governor says every Michigan county has “key arteries” of economic development qualifying for extra aid, few specifics about the account and how money would be distributed from it have been released since his budget was unveiled two months ago.
That is mainly because Snyder is having a tough time persuading the GOP-led Legislature to swallow an increase in the state gasoline tax from 19 cents to 33 cents a gallon and a hike in car license plate fees by 60 percent. Some Republicans are looking to freeze spending on other programs or tap other funds instead.
Yet if legislators find more money for roads before their self-imposed June budget deadline, look for a fight over how to spend the first significant influx of state dollars into transportation infrastructure in 15 years.
“We just want to make sure local governments aren’t cut out of the loop of that new revenue,” said David Lossing, mayor of Linden. “We do matter, too, because folks that use highways live somewhere off road in those communities, cities, villages and townships.”
Critics, typically officials from urban areas, say the state law that sets how transportation dollars are distributed is outdated. It was enacted in 1951, and city leaders argue that it disproportionately favors the building and maintenance of rural roads instead of urban roads used by more people.
Snyder is expected to want to devote more money to commercial routes in more populated areas key to trade and business. That could mean more funding for the Michigan Department of Transportation because while state highways and trunk lines account for just 8 percent of all road miles, they carry more than half the traffic.
Of the state and federal money specifically designated for roads and bridges, the state gets about 55 percent and counties, cities and villages receive about 45 percent.
MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said no one is talking much about funding formulas because “it’s all predicated on first arriving at some new funding,” but the governor understands local officials are “very eager” to learn more.
Snyder also is asking lawmakers to allow local governments to approve up to $280 million in their own vehicle registration fees, if OK’d by local voters.
John LaMacchia, a legislative associate and transportation expert at the Michigan Municipal League, said the organization is open to the concept depending on what any overall road funding deal looks like.
“We’ve said all along it can’t supplement something. It has to be in addition to,” he said.
If state license plate fees are raised significantly to help generate $1.2 billion more, it would be a “stretch” to think local governments could raise another $280 million in their own plate fees, LaMacchia said.
“Local options are good as long as it gives the community a fair shot to adopt it,” he said.
For now, Snyder and legislators are focused on how much new funding is needed and if a compromise package can be passed in coming months. Road investments have felt the effect of motorists driving less and using more fuel-efficient cars, which cut into fuel tax revenues. The state’s main transportation fund is at its lowest level in 30 years when adjusted for inflation.
Sen. Mark Jansen, a Republican from Gaines Township near Grand Rapids, was around when the last gasoline tax increase was approved in 1997. He initially said no to GOP Gov. John Engler but relented after Engler promised to build a 20-mile freeway in the Grand Rapids area.
“If I say yes to this, how does that impact my region? I’m going to ask the same question now. Not that I want anything in particular, but I think it’s only fair to ask,” Jansen said.
One concern is $1.2 billion in new revenue would keep roads from deteriorating to the point that much more expensive repairs are needed – but not lead to drastically better roads.
“That’s scary,” Jansen said. “If you’re going to do this to me as a driver, what am I going to see different?”