How other states fund roads could fix Michigan potholes

By DARCIE MORAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan and nearby states might share road funding concerns, but the Mitten might not have access to the same solutions.

Michigan’s road funding is unique because of its comparatively low gas and diesel taxes, lower taxes for diesel than gas and an unusual funding formula that sends a disproportionate amount of money to rural areas, said Kenneth Boyer, a Michigan State University professor of economics.

Indiana has dealt with cost issues by privatizing a toll road and increasing fuel tax revenue, said Indiana Department of Transportation media relations director Will Wingfield.

That can’t work here, Boyer said. Michigan has no tolls, only bridges.

As for increasing fuel tax revenue, Boyer said it’s not a long-term solution because of more fuel-efficient cars and fewer drivers.

In 2013, a citizen commission in Wisconsin recommended a $6.8 billion plan over the next decade that would raise funds through an increased fuel tax and an annual vehicle registration fee based on mileage driven, said Mark Gottlieb, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. With little response from the legislature, the department is now holding town hall meetings to tackle the issue.

Boyer said failing transportation economic policies are leaving states around the country grappling with the cost of maintaining and repairing roads.

“All states are running into the problem,” Boyer said. “We always have tended to shortchange our highways because we’ve never had very high fuel taxes.”

Michigan’s roads are widely recognized as some of the worst in the country, said Rich Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re at a point in Michigan where we’re starting to slide backwards,” he said. “The only thing more expensive than good roads is bad roads.”

Michigan ranks 30th in overall highway performance, according to the 20th Annual Highway Report from the California-based Reason Foundation, which was released in July 2013. The report is the latest available.

Meanwhile among the closest states, Indiana ranks 22nd, Ohio ranks 21st, Wisconsin ranks 31st and Illinois ranks 34th.

According to the report, Michigan was 42nd in the nation in 2005. Currently, Alaska holds last place for performance.

On average, the percent of state-owned rural and urban interstates in poor condition in the U.S. decreased between 2008 and 2009, but increased for major rural roads, according to the report.

The bad news: Almost 3.3 percent of rural interstates in Michigan are in poor condition, the 10th-worst in the country, according to the Reason Foundation. Almost 3.8 percent of its urban interstates are in poor conditions, ranking 29th.

The good news: Road improvement in Michigan urban areas improved dramatically from the previous year’s report from the Reason Foundation. The state jumped from 38th place and improved from 6.94 percent of urban interstates in poor condition.

Also, Michigan averaged $30,504 spent to maintain each mile of their roads, according to 2009 reporting. That’s 35th in the nation.

Many states have turned to higher taxes on gas for funding, and some Michigan politicians also want to change how taxes on fuel work.

House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, and Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, recently unveiled a plan to increase annual road funding by $500 million.

Boyer said their plan would raise the tax on diesel to equal that of gas. Also, taxes would go from a set amount per gallon to a percent of the purchase price.

But Boyer said any tax focused on the cost of fuel would not be successful because of the increasing focus on fuel efficiency.

He said the best plan is likely in Oregon, which now taxes the mileage on a vehicle. With that plan, the state can still receive high revenue despite decreasing use of fuel.

Road funding has been hurt by inflation because Michigan’s tax on fuel has not been raised since 1997, said Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

Fifty percent of local roads have been determined to be in poor condition, Donohue said.

She said the fact that some counties are turning to gravel roads when paved ones are damaged points to the problem.

Every dollar the state doesn’t spend on roads today will cost $6 or $14 once a road is in poor condition, she said.

James Lake, communications representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation North Region based out of Gaylord, said somehow the state needs more road funding.

“It’s all roads in Michigan that need additional investment to keep them in good condition,” Lake said.

Lake said about $1 billion more would get state highways back to 90 percent good condition and pay for maintenance.

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