By COLLIN KRIZMANICH
Capital News Service
LANSING — Across northern Michigan, county road commissions struggle to repair roads, replace old bridges and plow fresh snow with what they say is a serious shortfall in funding.
“Overall, our roads are failing,” said Jesse Campbell, manager of the Alcona County Road Commission. “Over the last 10 years, we have lost about a third of our workforce, and we are also working with very outdated equipment.”
Wexford County is also struggling, and its problems aren’t isolated, said Alan Cooper, the county’s road commission manager.
“We’re trying to do the best we can, but funding is sorely needed,” Cooper said. “It’s not just Wexford County that is hurting, it’s the entire state.”
On May 5, Michigan residents will vote on a ballot initiative to raise the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent. The House Fiscal Agency estimates this sales tax increase would generate at least an additional $1.6 billion each year, with an estimated $1.2 billion designated to road funding.
The higher sales tax could significantly increase transportation money available to local communities.
In Alcona County, for instance, Campbell said the new rate could add at least $1 million to the county’s $2.3 million road budget.
In Wexford County, Cooper says it would increase the maintenance budget by $900,000, which would make a dent in solving road problems but fails to address all the issues the county faces.
According to the 2014 Michigan Roads Crisis report issued by former Rep. Rick Olson, R-York Township, the state needs an additional $2.18 billion in road funding, nearly $1 billion more than this proposal would deliver.
Although the proposal may not match needs estimates, Cooper said, “If they offer $900,000 a year for us, we will make it work.”
Despite what road commissioners describe as a dire situation, the public is split on the ballot initiative.
A recent poll conducted by EPIC-MRA showed that if the vote was held now, 46 percent would vote for the sales tax increase and 41 percent would vote against it. However, after listening to details of the ballot proposal, 47 percent say they would vote against the proposal, with only 37 percent voting in favor of it.
Some proposal supporters say the public might be wary because the revenue generated from the sales tax increase is directed not only to road funding but also to areas such as mass transit, the School Aid Fund and the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.
“I think if there had been a straight transportation package, it would have had a better chance of passing,” Cooper said.
The resolution that led to the ballot proposal was passed at the last minute of the lame-duck session in December, after hours of negotiations and tradeoffs among senators.
“This is the best plan that we could come up with and actually get passed. It took a bipartisan effort to get that done,” said Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, who supports the proposal. “There is nothing simple about this, or it would have been done a long time ago.”
Rep. Peter Petallia, R-Presque Isle, chair of the Transportation Committee, voiced his concern that people may not see the need to vote for increasing taxes because the package tied to the proposal is complicated.
“As a chair of Transportation, I don’t go out and take a stance one way or another,” Pettalia said. “I do spend a lot of time educating. It’s important for me as chair to let people know what the ballot proposal really is.”
If the sales tax increase fails to pass, and no additional road funding is generated by the legislature, Campbell is worried about the effects this will have in Alcona County.
“In the next two or three years, we are going to have to make some huge cuts if something isn’t done with funding,” Campbell said. “We may implement a 72-hour time frame before we can respond to snow falls on local roads, which would devastate a lot of communities.”
If voters approve the ballot proposal, the changes will not take effect until October, when the current budget year ends. In case the proposal fails, Petallia says this leaves time for the Legislature to work on a new plan for road funding.
“If it doesn’t pass, there is, and will be, a continued effort to move something into the funding needs of our infrastructure,” said Petallia.
By COLLIN KRIZMANICH