By JUSTINE McGUIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan’s deteriorating roads aren’t equipped to handle the extra traffic from the growing number of tourists throughout the state, and some officials fear bad roads could turn tourists away or give them a bad first impression.
A lot of money goes into Pure Michigan and it’s been “wildly successful,” but the first impression of Michigan for many people is bad, dirty roads full of potholes that detract from the state’s beauty, said Kirk Steudle, director of the Department of Transportation (MDOT).
Pure Michigan is an ad campaign that promotes the state as a tourism destination. Indicators of statewide tourism increases include record hotel occupancy in 2012 and increased out-of-state spending, according the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
Pat Black, director of the Marquette County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “It’s great the state gives us $25 million a year for Pure Michigan, but there are more and more people on the roads wearing them down.”
“We’re really shooting ourselves in the foot,” Black said.
For the past five years, tourism in the Marquette area has risen 5 percent annually.
Eighty percent of all Michigan tourism is auto-based, an MDOT report said.
Black said she’s a fan of pay-to-use for anything, including roads, and would like to see more toll roads.
“It’s troublesome to me that we’re pitching Pure Michigan when our roads are falling apart,” Black said.
The state charges tolls only for the Mackinac Bridge and the Blue Water Bridge. They fund themselves and generate about $38 million each year, Steudle said.
Rep. Peter Pettalia, R-Presque Isle, who chairs the House Tourism Committee and sits on the House Transportation Committee, said that implementing toll roads would be costly and difficult because “roads in Michigan aren’t designed to be tolls.”
Traditionally, toll roads have a limited number of entrances and exits, and users pay for the miles travelled, but Michigan’s freeways have multiple exits and side roads.
“The roads issue has been brought to our attention by the governor and we’re right at the beginning of this discussion,” Pettalia said. “It’s not new, but it’s just now at the forefront.”
He said the Transportation Committee will soon hear testimony on road needs. The committee will most likely look at ways to make operations more cost-effective first, and then look at getting more money for roads if it’s needed.
Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said that he and Pettalia will work together to find solutions to road problems because tourism and transportation are heavily interrelated.
Schmidt is also the author of the 2011 law that brought Pure Michigan funding up to $25 million annually.
“Everything is going to be on the table – I’m not going to discount anything right away,” he said.
Comparing Michigan to Florida, he said, “If Florida didn’t invest in their roads, why would anyone want to go there in the winter?”
Viable options for more money for road maintenance and improvements are raising state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, the two main funding sources. Roads also receive federal funding and a small amount of general state dollars.
In Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget address, he proposed raising the gas tax to 33 cents per gallon and registration fees by 60 percent for cars and light trucks and 25 percent for heavy trucks. Those increases would help get MDOT an additional $1.2 billion annually.
The state’s fuel tax is 18.7 cents per gallon and was last raised in 1997. The rate is lower than in some bordering states: Ohio charges 28 cents, and Wisconsin’s rate is 31 cents. Due to more fuel-efficient vehicles and higher gas prices – which cause some people to drive less – gas tax revenue in 2011 was more than $100 million less than in 2001, according to MDOT.
The federal gas tax is 18.4 percent. Steudle said the majority of that money comes back to Michigan to help fund U.S., interstate and state highways.
The state also imposes a 6 percent sales tax on the total fuel price, but Steudle said that money is designated for education.
For 2011-12, MDOT numbers show federal funding for Michigan roads was $1 billion. State fuel taxes generated $946 million, and registration fees were $876 million.
Steudle said, “People say it’s not a good time to raise gas taxes or registration fees, but if they’re not in favor of those, then my only comeback is they must be in favor of poor roads because there’s nothing left. Those are the options.”
And Black said, “People are going to cry and whine and carry on because that’s what they do. Somewhere along the way, it’s going to cost us to drive. MDOT just doesn’t have the money … and it’s not going to fall out of the sky.”
Despite bad roads, Black said she expects tourism to increase.
“I always wonder what people think about us when they see we have bad roads,” she said. “But I don’t think it makes a big difference in travel plans.”
However, Pettalia said he is convinced there is a positive correlation between tourism and infrastructure and roads – when the quality of roads, bridges and marinas declines, so do the numbers of tourists.
By JUSTINE McGUIRE