Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 9, 2013

Road improvements come down to funding


— TRAVERSE CITY — Kalkaska resident Kip Watkins is fed up with Michigan’s deteriorating roads.

“The roads here are absolutely ridiculous,” Watkins said as he stood outside the Traverse City Secretary of State Office and waited to complete a title transfer.

Gov. Rick Snyder floated ideas for a 14-cent increase to the state’s gas tax and a 60 percent increase in vehicle registration fees as possible ways to fund road repairs, but Watkins doesn’t think drivers should pay more at the pump or at the Department of Motor Vehicles to fix the problem.

Watkins acknowledged there’s no easy solution to fixing Michigan’s roads, but something needs to be done soon.

“We’ve buried ourselves over the years,” Watkins said. “We’ve waited too long. We’re going to have to do something about it.”

Watkins voiced his thoughts as the state’s top transportation official delivered a presentation on transportation funding to representatives of local transit groups.

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, compared maintenance of state roads and bridges to car ownership. Car owners can pay a small price for an oil change every several thousand miles, or they can wait until the engine dies and pay a lot more to replace the whole thing.

Michigan’s roads are no different, Steudle said.

”We can choose to spend $10 billion now, or $26 billion later,” he said. “And that’s a very conservative number.”

Steudle called transportation the “backbone” of Michigan’s economy, with roads serving as an integral part of the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Trucking accounts for two-thirds of all freight tonnage moved in Michigan, and 80 percent of the state’s tourism is auto-based.

But the number of poor roads in Michigan is increasing. Many of the state’s “trunkline” roads -- interstate highways, U.S. highways and state highways -- are on the cusp of needing total reconstruction, as opposed to maintenance.

Road money in Michigan comes in large part from fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. But gas consumption in Michigan peaked in 2004 and has been going down since. Last year’s road revenue was comparable to revenue levels in 1998, Steudle said.

At the same time the prices of essential road materials like concrete, asphalt and salt have double, tripled, and even quadrupled in recent years.

"If we were miners right now, the canary would be flopping on the floor because there is no air to breathe,” Steudle said.

Steudle said Snyder’s proposed 14-cent gas tax increase and 60 percent registration fee increase face strong opposition.

But other ideas for increasing road revenue exist. Members of Michigan’s Senate proposed raising the state sales tax by one cent. Any sales tax increase must be approved in a statewide vote.

State Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Schmidt is a proponent of moving from a cents-per-gallon gas tax to a percentage wholesale tax.

Schmidt said he is working on a package of bills related to Michigan’s infrastructure and road funding. He expects to introduce parts of that legislative package within two weeks.

Michigan currently allocates about $1.7 billion annually for roads and infrastructure. Snyder wants to increase that figure by between $1 billion and $1.2 billion per year.