Rick Haglund: Why fixing the damn roads is so damn hard

August 2, 2019 6:50 am

Former Farnum Building in downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

How in the world are we ever going to fix the damn roads?

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature policy prescription — boosting the gas tax by 45 cents a gallon to raise $2.5 billion to repair roads and bridges — is going nowhere in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, Republicans who control the House and Senate are working on schemes to shift money around in the state budget, borrow money and sell state assets to finance roadwork, while keeping the state gas tax at the current 26.3 cents a gallon.

Want to buy the Blue Water Bridge, some freeway welcome centers or bonds, anyone?

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And while just about everyone agrees that Michigan’s roads are terrible, survey after survey has shown that motorists are unwilling to dig deeper into their wallets to fix them.

The latest comes from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, which asked residents for their views on the region’s economy.

Almost 60% of the almost 600 people who responded to the unscientific, online survey said the condition of roads, bridges and water and sewer systems was the greatest economic challenge facing this region of 4.7 million people — almost half the state’s population.

But raising taxes to improve that infrastructure was not among the actions residents said were needed to make the region more prosperous. To the contrary, one of the themes expressed by residents was that taxes should be cut to promote economic growth.

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Why are people so opposed to raising taxes for road repairs, particularly when they are experiencing crumbling roads every time they leave their driveways?

The answer encompasses a variety of factors, including distrust of government, a lack of understanding of how much we pay to support transportation infrastructure and a belief that state government has all the money it needs to fix the roads.

The last time Michigan boosted the gas tax offers a stark lesson in why people lack faith in government to fix problems.

Then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a 7 cents-a-gallon gas tax hike and a 20% vehicle registration fee increase in 2015, part of a deal to raise $1.2 billion in new road funding by 2021.

Whitmer wants to fix the damn roads. Citizens wonder why the last tax hike wasn’t enough.

But the fee hikes didn’t take effect until January 1, 2017. And the new revenue was far less than what was needed to fix the roads.

“Clearly [Snyder and the Legislature] did us a disservice by doing half a job and doing it poorly in 2015,” said Eric Lupher, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. “Actions like that just breed cynicism.”

The amount of fuel taxes assessed at the pump and where the money goes are a mystery to most people.

In Michigan, motorists pay state and federal fuel taxes and a 6% sales tax. The sales tax revenue goes to support schools and local government revenue sharing, not the roads.

When we buy a dress at a clothing store, or a wrench at a hardware store, we get a receipt that tells us how much sales tax we paid. There is no such tax itemization at the gas pump.

“People would understand how little they pay if it was broken down,” Lupher said.

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A 2015 survey of Michigan and California residents conducted by Michigan State University economist Ronald Fisher found that half the Michigan respondents thought they were paying an average $50 a month in gas taxes when the actual amount was $10.

And while 89% of Michigan residents surveyed favored more spending on road maintenance, 43% said they were unwilling to pay more. The California results were similar.

SEMCOG Executive Director Kathleen Lomako said such survey results show a widespread “aversion to taxes” and a lack of understanding of how expensive the transportation infrastructure is to maintain.

She said people also are looking for others, such as trucking companies and businesses, in general, to pay more for road repairs.

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Fisher said state government must do a much better job of educating people on the amount of fuel taxes they pay, where the money is spent and the size of the transportation infrastructure problem.

But focusing on hiking the gas tax as a cure-all might be the wrong approach, he said.

“There’s a concern that in some ways the gas tax is the old way of funding roads, not the modern way,” Fisher said. “Cars are becoming more fuel efficient. If people are using fewer gallons of gas, an increase in the gas tax might not keep up” with road repair needs.

And while electric vehicles represent just a tiny fraction of vehicles on the road, automakers are looking to largely replace the gas-powered vehicles they now sell.

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That should prompt Michigan policymakers to consider a mix of taxes to fund its transportation infrastructure, Fisher said. That could include tolls, higher electric vehicle fees, replacing the gas tax with one that taxes motorists for miles driven, assessing a mileage tax on out-of-state trucks that pass through Michigan and taxing Uber and Lyft trips. 

“The question is how quickly self-driving cars, electric vehicles and ride-sharing develop,” he said. “All those things will have a huge impact” on transportation funding.

But Fisher admits that radically changing the way we fund transportation will be a challenge for conservative policymakers holding sway in Lansing.

“We have to devise a system for the 2020s and 2030s, and that’s more difficult,” he said.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.