Traverse City Record-Eagle


January 20, 2013

George Weeks: Good roads an oft-sought elusive goal

At an extraordinary 1981 "Gathering of Governors" at Michigan State University with four of his predecessors and successors, 1949-60 Democratic Gov. G. Mennen Williams said: "Each and every one of us stands on the shoulders of our predecessors." Regardless of party.

Building a foundation for those who follow certainly is true regarding the long-running critical issue of the financing, building and maintaining the infrastructure of freeways, state highways and county roads so vital to all Michigan's citizens, visitors and economy.

It was welcome to hear the transportation emphasis last week in Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's third State of the State Address, where he called for $1.2 billion in higher gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to help repair ailing roads and bridges.

While many earlier governors put an emphasis on good roads, most notable for a building boom in the 20th century was 1921-26 Republican Gov. Alexander Groesbeck, one of Michigan's most successful chief executives. His 2-cent-per-gallon tax, started in 1925, and push for a revamped structure led to improvement of 6,500 miles of state trunk lines and building of 2,000 miles of hard-surfaced roads.

Now comes Snyder with an applaudable proposal to shift from the gas tax to a tax on the wholesale level as part of "investing in Michigan's deteriorating roads to ensure long-term savings for the state, save lives and deliver quality, cost-effective results for taxpayers."

Also part of his proposed "simple and fair user fee" is an increase in vehicle registration fees for light cars and for trucks. His office said the total will be about $120 per car on average, "but since it's a basic user fee, it will fluctuate based on the amount of use and the vehicle's value. Snyder will work with lawmakers to determine the proper balance between the funding sources to ensure that adequate revenue is generated."

Asserting that poor roads cause an average of $357 in repairs each year for family cars, Snyder said: "Investing money in our roads and bridges today saves money in the long run. It also builds the foundation for our 21st century economy. We know what needs to be done. Let's fix our roads."

It will be an uphill challenge for Snyder to have any more success on his transportation plan than 2003-2010 Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm did in 2009 when, based on recommendations from her Transportation Funding Task Force, she proposed shifting to a wholesale tax and increased registration fees.

"Sound familiar?"quipped Boyd, who was press secretary for Granholm. She also noted that the current Snyder-appointed state Transportation Director Kirk Steudle was the Granholm-appointed director back then.

Granholm rallied support from some business groups, "But," said Boyd, "with legislative leaders in both chambers running for office in 2010, neither was willing to advance it."

While again there is substantial business support for the transportation funding, election issues again loom.

As reported by the Detroit Free Press, Snyder wants it dealt with quickly because "the closer you get to the 2014 election it's going to be harder to get it through the Legislature, "Bill Rustem, Snyder's director of strategy and former adviser to 1969-82 Republican Gov. William G. Milliken, said in a briefing before Snyder's address.

The last time the Legislature raised the gas tax was in 1997, when 1991-02 Republican Gov. John Engler signed a 4-cent-per-gallon increase.

In noting that, and applauding Snyder's push for catch-up funding, the County Road Association of Michigan (CRAM), whose 83 members collectively maintain 75 percent of Michigan's roads and bridges, said: "Michigan roads are deteriorating at a rate of $3 million daily --more than $1 billion annually."

CRAM Director John Niemela said: "There are only two solutions, pay now or pay much more later!"

In his address, Snyder announced that former co-House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, now an executive of DTE, as chairman of the new regional transit authority for southeast Michigan. The next day, Snyder joined U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in announcement that Detroit's M-1 Woodward Avenue light rail project will get $25 milllion in federal funds.

Worthy of note is that during President Gerald R. Ford's administration, Milliken met in Washington with Treasury Secretary to pitch federal funds for such regional transit projects. He was told funds would come if Metro Detroit gets its "act together."

Decades later, there is progress in that direction.

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