By Emma-Jean Bedford
and Ian Wendrow
Listen Up, Lansing
LANSING-The question on everyone’s mind lately has been: “What’s happening with these roads?” But it’s not just roads that are troublesome. Lansing has recently been dealing with issues related to low residential population, a distinct lack of diverse businesses, and overall deteriorating infrastructure.
An effort to address infrastructure funding is currently on the upcoming May 5 ballot, titled Proposal 1.
Proposal 1 is a ballot initiative meant to raise funds, mostly for new road work, through changes in taxes.
If passed, the House Fiscal Agency, a non-partisan agency within the House of Representatives that analyzes the financial effects of Michigan legislation, estimates that the tax increase would raise about $2.1 billion this fiscal year; of which $1.23 billion would go towards roads, $463.1 million to the state’s general fund, $292.4 million to schools and $89.9 million to local governments.
In short, it aims to eliminate the 6 percent sales tax on all fuel purchases and the 19 cent per gallon tax currently in effect.
It will offset the lost revenue by raising overall sales tax in Michigan from its current 6 percent to 7 percent and implement a 14.9 percent wholesale tax on fuel by October 2015. It will also increase the registration fees for new vehicles, according to a report issued by Rep. Peter Pettalia’s, R-Presque Isle, office.
As an architect of the bill and chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Pettalia and other legislators are banking heavily on the proposal’s passage.
“We haven’t had an increase directed towards roads like that in decades, maybe even longer,” said Alan Klein, legislative director for David Pettalia’s office.
“The thing is currently over 80 percent of sales tax goes to schools. What this proposal does is raise enough funds to allow the rest of the road package to go into effect,” he said.
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero’s administration also strongly supports Proposal 1.
“If it fails, we believe it could be years or more before we see any improvement in state road funding and that would be a disaster for this city,” Randy Hannan, executive assistant to the Mayor, said at a city council meeting on April 13.
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the entity responsible for overseeing major roadways in Michigan such as Interstate 96 and U.S. Highway 127, has expressed concern over Michigan’s funding priorities in the lead up to the ballot referendum.
Kari Arend, a communications representative for MDOT, said in an email interview that, “There are groups on both sides of the issue that have an opinion on this subject. Overall, MDOT can only educate the public on the issue but not take a stand either way.”
Arend then linked to a statement on MDOT’s website addressing the city’s shaky handling of the road situation.
“Both state and local road agencies have taken steps to improve asset management, increase the effectiveness of existing investment, reduce costs, and employ innovative approaches that make the most of their limited funding. Despite these efforts, it’s clear that without significant additional investment, our roads and bridges will only continue to get worse,” the statement said.
Receiving largely bipartisan support, the proposal has been met with mixed reception among Lansing residents.
“There are places I can’t even drive here. It’s embarrassing, especially when there are people here from out of town,” said Lansing resident Michelle Cherry.
“I wouldn’t even mind paying more taxes to spend the money and fix the roads. I think they’ve said they would do it before, and they haven’t done it. If the proposal passes, they should stick to their word and actually fix the roads,” she said.
Cooley Law School student Laraib Sharif is equally discouraged about the proposal’s chances for success: “They’ve had this proposal for the last three years and every time it doesn’t pass.”
Some hesitation on the part of voters comes from the ambiguity of the bill’s provisions.
Though the bill is intended to address a number of funding concerns for Michigan, most voters have been exposed to Proposal 1 as the “road tax legislation,” meaning they’ve been led to believe Proposal 1 was designed solely to raise funds for Michigan’s roads.
The lack of voter control over where the funds from Proposal 1 would go is the biggest reason that Jamie Clark, an employee at the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), is voting “no” on the proposal.
“I would be fine with raising my taxes to fix the roads but I think there’s some grey areas with the bill. Like they said that most of it is going to a general fund…I just don’t think that we have a lot of control as voters where it’s going to go when it goes into the general fund,” she said.
However, roads are but one part of the problem. While making access to Lansing both safe and easy is a priority, the city must also make sure that Michiganders want to stay by providing appealing housing options.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, compiled by the Michigan Information Center, Lansing’s population has decreased from 127,321 to 119,128 between 1990 and 2000, a 6.4 percent decrease.
Part of this decline is due in part to increased crime in Lansing’s underdeveloped neighborhoods. The 2013 Uniform Crime Report released by the FBI showed Lansing’s crime rate was more than double that of the whole state of Michigan.
“In terms of housing, we need to make it safe so people can feel like they can raise their family here because it feels like most people who even work in Lansing choose to raise their families in the surrounding areas,” said Shane Guisky, a student at Lansing Community College studying political science.
After fixing its roads and drawing in new residents, Lansing has yet another challenge to face: how to attract businesses to serve a growing population.
An example of this revitalization occurred recently when the Eyde Company began renovation on the Knapp’s Centre on South Washington Square, which includes creating retail space on the lower floors and luxury apartments on the upper levels.
For Greg Weston, owner of Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shoppe in downtown Lansing, projects like these reaffirm his belief in the viability of business growth in Lansing.
“When I came here in 1979 there were 13 restaurants. Today there’s about 54. It’s always a good thing when more business gets brought in,” he said.
Across the road from Weston’s restaurant is The Peanut Shop, whose co-owner Tammy Melser holds a less favorable view of Lansing’s ability to provide for its businesses.
“There’s some aspects that are not business friendly. Like parking, we pay $150 per month to park our cars out back and for our employees that have to drive here that’s their entire paycheck going to parking,” Melser said.
“Then there’s the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) who we pay taxes to. They’re supposed to come by and take care of the sidewalks for us, but during the winter we were out there shoveling and salting our own sidewalks because the DDA sometimes wouldn’t show up until 3 p.m.,” she said.
Others, like Sharif, have similarly mixed feelings about such projects.
“As far as the business thing [Knapp’s Centre renovation], the business idea is great, but then they are trying to do luxury apartments on top and you can’t just take a jump into luxury without having residents. First you need to fill the buildings here and they all used to be filled when enrollment was higher at Cooley, now there are so many empty places so what’s the point of another luxury building?” he said.
It’s not just the private sector that’s getting in on business development. State institutions like the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) are instrumental in getting projects like the Knapp’s Centre renovation completed.
“The MEDC was invaluable in making the vision of renovating the Knapp’s Centre a reality,” said Keith Lambert, a tri-county development manager for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP). LEAP works closely in tandem with the MEDC to develop Lansing’s business areas.
“The MEDC has a host of incentives that LEAP and the city of Lansing have used to essentially rebuild downtown Lansing over the past decade. The Brownfield program, which allows us to capture the incremental increase in property tax value on a specific site and use it to repay a developer for certain environmentally-geared activities on the site, has been at the heart of this redevelopment and revitalization,” Lambert said.