By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Whoa!
Should counties be able to tax horse-drawn vehicles to raise money for road repairs?
That’s the idea from Rep. Joel Johnson, R-Clare, who wants to give counties the option of collecting an annual registration fee of up to $50 per vehicle if local voters approve. County road funding now comes from the state fuel tax and motor vehicle registration fees.
Rev. William Lindholm, who chairs the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, said his Livonia-based organization just heard of the proposal and hasn’t looked into it yet.
The proposal comes at a time when the Legislature has failed to act on Gov. Rick Snyder’s request for more state funding for roads.
Johnson’s central Michigan district has many Amish families who, for religious reasons, don’t drive motor vehicles and motorized farm equipment. There also are Amish settlements in other communities around the state, including Centreville, Mio, Quincy, Hillsdale County and Mackinac County.
“The wheels and hooves are a little tough on the roads, especially on fresh pavement,” Johnson said, adding that he received constituent requests to look at the problem.
Richard Haynak, who heads the Clare County Road Commission, said he discussed the issue with Johnson several years ago after receiving complaints from Grant Township residents but his commission won’t take a formal position until it studies the bill.
“Most of the damage to hard-surfaced blacktop roads are cosmetic. It looks kind of bad at first, but it’s not that damaging to blacktop. But gravel and dirt roads take more maintenance because of the heavy workhorses – more maintenance time and more blading, it costs money.
“You blade them on Monday and they’re bad again on Wednesday, but other vehicles do it too,” Haynak said. “A few dollars will help.”
Not all county road officials say it’s a good idea.
For example, Chris Minger, director of operations at the St. Joseph County Road Commission, said, “It’s not that we’re not looking for new funding sources, but the amount of the funding versus the negative impact, they wouldn’t balance each other.
“You’re not going to collect much money to make much of a difference in some of the damaged areas with the amount they’re talking about,” Minger said of the proposed $50 maximum annual fee, compared to his road commission’s $5.5 million-a-year budget. “By putting on those claims, requesting or requiring the funding, from what I see it would generate a negative attitude in the Amish community.”
And in Mackinac County, road commission engineer and manager Dirk Heckman said a registration fee would create “parity with other users of the roads.
“However,” Heckman continued, “I see it just being a drop in the bucket, so to speak, as a solution to our road funding deficit” in a county that spends about $2 million a year on road maintenance.
What about Mackinac Island, where horse-drawn vehicles literally rule the roads and most motorized vehicles are banned?
“There are no county roads on Mackinac Island,” Heckman said, “so the question here is where would the money go?” He said roads on the island are the responsibility of the state Department of Transportation or the city.
Johnson’s proposal reflects a larger issue, said Monica Ware, the public relations specialist for the Country Road Association of Michigan, or CRAM.
Horse-drawn vehicles are “using the roads the same as a vehicle but they’re not paying registration fees,” Ware said.
While CRAM has no formal position on the bill, Ware said the organization supports the larger concept “of making sure there is equity in the user fees that go to paying for our roads.” For example, she said, electric-powered cars don’t pay fuel taxes. Also, the fuel taxes that off-road vehicles owners pay is allocated for trails, not roads – even if they cause damage to the roads and shoulders.
In Ohio, some Amish residents voluntarily contribute to a fund earmarked for state, county and township road projects, said Christopher Young, the Holmes County engineer in Millersburg. His county gets $90,000 a year from the Amish Road and Safety Fund.
“With the price of material, it doesn’t go very far. It’s voluntary and we’re glad to get any help we can,” Young said.
Johnson acknowledged that his bill would not be a “huge money-raiser but it will help some and will also help everyone feel a little more a part of contributing to our roads. The main thing is that it’s not to penalize anyone – it’s to create a little more of a level playing field.”
Meanwhile, the Clare Area Chamber of Commerce promotes the presence of the Amish to attract tourists. As its website says, “Clare remains surrounded by many farm families, among them Amish and Mennonite. Many farms have no electricity and horse-drawn buggies are the main source of travel.
“These old traditions co-exist with modern living here in the Clare area,” it says. “You can find home-baked goods and handcrafted quilts, as well as hand-crafted furniture and other woodwork. Life can move a little slower if you let it, so embrace the pace and visit Clare’s Amish community.”
Johnson said he’d mentioned the issue to leaders in the Amish community in the past and “they were not strongly opposed.” But “it’s been quite a while” since those discussions, and “I need to do that again in the near future.”
The bill would apply to “nonmotorized vehicles powered by an animal within the equine family,” a definition that could cover donkey carts and pony-pulled wagons as well as horse-drawn buggies.
The proposal is pending in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.