Dodging potholes and avoiding crumbling roads have become common burdens for Michigan residents.
“I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone that drives on our roads that they have gone from bad, to worse, to dangerous,” Roger Martin, a spokesman for the Safe Roads Yes campaign said.
The future of the state’s roadways will be determined by the results of the May 5 ballot proposal, which will ask voters to support an increase in both the state gas tax and the state sales tax in order to raise revenue for Michigan’s roads, bridges and transportation.
Proposal 1 would eliminate both the sales tax and state tax on fuel and replace it with a new wholesale fuel tax. As the first gas tax increase since 1997, Martin said every penny of the wholesale tax would be spent on road repairs and transportation.
In addition, the proposal would raise the state sales tax on non-fuel products from 6 percent to 7 percent. As the 6 percent sales tax on fuel currently funds public schools and local governments across Michigan, this penny increase on the retail sales tax would prevent the new fuel tax from creating holes in school and city budgets.
“Finally, we will have a tax system in place that is actually sending all the state gas taxes we pay to fix our roads and bridges,” Martin said.
According to East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett, Michigan roads and bridges are facing a crisis because generations of state legislatures have failed to account for inflation and regulate the gas tax over the past 18 years.
“If we had gradually adjusted our gas tax upward over the course of that period of time, it would have been a much easier political shift,” he said. “Now we have this period of almost 20 years where nothing has been done to make the revenue system match our economic conditions, so it’s a much more difficult challenge.”
Under the proposal, the increased gas tax would generate an estimated $1.8 million over the next three years to fund East Lansing roads, bridges and transportation. This would serve as an addition to the $2.8 million in road revenue that the city currently receives from the state government every year.
“It’s always a challenge for government officials to increase fees or taxes,” Triplett said. “It’s never popular, but it’s often necessary, and this is one of those cases. While I don’t think this proposal is perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I do think it’s our last, best option for addressing this issue.”
Current Condition of City Roads
With approximately 62 miles of local streets, Director of Public Works Scott House said routine maintenance is critical to extending the service life of roads.
The city visually rates the roadways every other year using the Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating System From 2008 to 2014, the report indicates trends of steady decline in the condition of East Lansing roads, specifically local streets.
“It allows us to see where we need to invest,” House said. “The current road funding has limited our ability to even do the routine maintenance because we are challenged with so many roads in really poor conditions.”
One treatment of filling roads with new asphalt would cost the city approximately $320,000 to complete a two-lane, local street. Reconstruction repairs that include tearing out the curb, gutter and gravel are estimated at $1 million per mile.
Although the city must still determine which roads need to be reconstructed, House said the new funding mechanism introduced by Proposal 1 would greatly benefit the city’s transportation repair efforts.
“This type of funding is a game changer, specifically on the local streets,” he said. “This will help turn the tide to a more sustainable model where there is more routine investment.”
While major streets like Abbot receive extra funding through the government’s Surface Transportation Program, House said local streets experience the worst damage.
“All revenues at the local level have been constrained so these have been hit the hardest,” he said. “Roads create value, so when they look bad, people get frustrated.”
Mayor Triplett agrees that the city’s crumbling road infrastructures present implications beyond the inconveniences and safety concerns faced by residents.
“They (road issues) also create a real drag on the local economy,” he said. “No one wants to start a business or raise a family in a place where the roads are falling to pieces. It’s not only a quality of life issue, it’s an economic issue for East Lansing and every community across Michigan.”
Implications of Damaged Roads
According to a study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the average household in Michigan could anticipate paying an additional $525 per year in taxes by 2016 if Proposal 1 is voted through.
While these calculations are a rough estimate, Martin said the data does not account for how much the average Michigan resident is spending on auto repair bills each year, which most often result from the state’s deteriorating roads.
“The average Michigan motorist right now spends more per year on vehicle repairs than in any other state in the nation,” he said. “You will also see that Michigan spends the lowest amount per person fixing our roads among all 50 states.”
Although Proposal 1 is a tax increase, Martin said a decrease in vehicle repair costs from improved road systems would reduce the burden that the higher tax places on residents.
According to Matt McGinley, manager at the East Lansing Tuffy Auto Service Center, car damage from crumbling roads can cost Michigan drivers between $250 and $500 on a single repair.
He said wheel bearing damage, bent rims and broken ball joints have been a consistent problem for Michigan drivers as road conditions have declined over the last few years.
They (potholes) have definitely been a cause of damage,” he said. “As long as they have been complaining about the roads on TV, they (pothole repairs) have been that bad.”
While East Lansing resident Jeremy Powell has not encountered significant damage to his car from potholes, he does acknowledge the benefits of additional revenue for fixing roads.
“I’m for it (Proposal 1) if there will be better roads, because I’m on the road all the time for my job,” he said. “Safer roads for me and safer roads for everyone would be worth the gas tax increase.”
Opposition To Higher Taxes
Concerned Taxpayers of Michigan
is a grass-roots organization established after the introduction of Proposal 1 to support road repairs without higher taxes.
“It’s a proposal to massively expand taxing and spending policies for government for all different areas that have nothing to do with roads,” Adam de Angeli, executive director of Concerned Taxpayers of Michigan said.
According to Angeli, only $434 million from the proposed $2 billion tax increase would go toward funding roads in the first year because of debt that will be paid off. As most voters are unaware of these facts, he said these numbers highlight the deceptive nature of the marketing scheme behind Proposal 1.
“To use the state fee of our roads as a political hostage to get these increases through is, in our view, fundamentally immoral.”
“Is it the new normal that we are now legislating through emergencies where the government just can’t seem to find the room in the budget for something as basic as funding roads? The question is, if we pass this, what’s next?”
Angeli said the organization has testified in Lansing about the proposed language of the ballot. Although condensing the 46,000 words of legislation into 100 words or fewer is no easy task, Angeli said he believes that the proposal must disclose all components to voters.
As the proposal only requires voters to pass the constitutional amendment of raising the sales tax to 7 percent, Angeli said the 10 additional bills that are enacted by Proposal 1 could be changed by the Legislature without a vote from residents.
“Theoretically, the language of the proposal as shown on the ballot could be made false,” he said. “Voters are being asked to essentially participate in the same thing they can’t stand seeing their lawmakers do: passing really complex bills on a whole slew of unrelated issues, without really knowing the package.”
Another component of Proposal 1 includes increased funding for Michigan schools and local governments.
According to Martin, the 1 percent increase of the state sales tax would help replace the funds that schools and governments would lose as a result of stripping the 6 percent sales tax from fuel under the proposal.
This increased tax would generate an additional $100 million per year for local governments and provide approximately $300 million to the School Aid Fund in fiscal year 2015-16. An estimated $200 million would be allocated to this fund by fiscal year 2017-18.
While it is not clear how the additional revenue will be divided up, East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education President Nell Kuhnmuench said the spending boost would be very beneficial.
“My understanding is that it would have a positive impact, but an individual school district impact will be modest,” she said. “That’s certainly not an insignificant amount of money and we would welcome it.”
Under the proposal, the raised sales tax will provide increased revenue for K-12 schools and community colleges, excluding universities.
If this bill is not passed through on May 5, Kuhnmuench said it is possible that the Legislature may introduce a bill to increase road funding without increasing taxes.
“My concern is that they (the Legislature) will look to money being spent on schools and take that money wherever they can, legally and constitutionally, to use for other purposes,” she said. “If there was a move to direct more money from the current budget into roads, I’m very concerned that it would negatively impact schools in our state.”
A recent EPIC-MRA poll estimated that Proposal 1 will not have enough support from Michigan residents to get voted through on May 5. After conducting a telephone poll of 600 residents, it was found that 66 percent of voters oppose the bill, while only 24 percent plan to support the proposal.
According to the poll, opposition increased to 70 percent after potential voters learned more details about the bill.
“It is very complex and that’s the problem,” Mayor Triplett said. “The more you explain it to people, the less they support it. I want it to pass, but I’m not confident that this will happen in East Lansing and then we will be in a world of trouble.”
According to Martin, the fiscally conservative Republicans and Democrats who run the Michigan Legislature have rejected alternative proposals suggested by individuals who don’t support increased revenue for roads.
While some individuals have recommended alternate methods such as raiding health care funds or taking money from universities, he said these outrageous suggestions can’t get enough votes to pass the Legislature, or they fall short of raising the money needed to adequately fix the roads.
“Politics is the art of what is possible, and this is the best proposal that this Legislature and governor could agree on,” Martin said. “It’s all going to come to turnout.”