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Imploding Roads Natural Consequence Of 2015 Plan

By Zachary Gorchow
Editor
Posted: February 27, 2018 4:42 PM

There were a couple aspects of the 2015 road funding plan that were puzzling.

One was that lawmakers decided to finally take the potential political hit for increasing taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for road repairs yet did so in a way where motorists would not see a discernible increase in road work for years. The second was that lawmakers decided to finally take the potential political hit for increasing taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for road repairs and yet did not do so at a level to actually fix the problem.

Pure fury among motorists has exploded in the past three weeks as Michigan’s roads disintegrated after a sudden warm-up, re-freeze and major snowstorm followed by a sudden warm-up and flooding rains. Potholes have erupted everywhere. The endless on-the-cheap patch jobs in recent years blew apart.

Since everyone has a road story, I’ll go to the one I have to face the most. Saginaw Highway in East Lansing, from Coolidge Road on the west to Abbot Road on the east, is a state trunk line that has been deteriorating for several years to the point where I switch lanes in advance of knowing when the really bad potholes and ruts are imminent. Every year, I think this is the year that the road will at least be resurfaced. Every year I have been wrong, and now it is a traveshamockery of a road.

But, why, I have seen many people ask, are Michigan’s roads in such horrible condition given the substantial vehicle registration fee increase motorists are paying and the less noticeable 7.3 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase that has gone into effect?

The answer gets into the weeds a little, but here are the basics.

In the early part of the decade, Governor Rick Snyder, unable to persuade the Legislature to back a tax increase for roads, agreed with the Legislature to for the first time spend General Fund money on roads. This provided an increase in road funding, albeit it a fraction of the billions needed. Eventually, this amounted to $400 million.

Then, once the road funding plan passed and the tax and fee increases came online, all that new revenue initially did was replace what the General Fund had been providing. That General Fund money – historically used for higher education, prisons, Medicaid, human services and the basic operations of state government – went back to those functions. Taxes went up, but road spending did not.

This year, road spending will rise, but the real increase is contingent on the second part of that 2015 plan – dipping back into the General Fund to the tune of $600 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year for roads. Lawmakers, feeling the heat from constituents, have decided to speed up the phase in of that $600 million, with a plan to appropriate $175 million this year (none was planned under the 2015 legislation) and $150 million for the next fiscal year (as planned).

Still, that full $1.2 billion in new spending under the 2015 plan will not become a reality under current law for three more years.

Speaking of that $1.2 billion, that’s the other problem – it's well short of what is needed. Even with that $1.2 billion in new road spending, it’s still not enough to reverse the slide in the percentage of Michigan’s roads rated good. That figure dated to the previous decade and by the time legislative action actually began to happen in 2014 and 2015, it was, well, dated. Road officials said the real need was more than $2 billion, but the Legislature seemed to settle on the old $1.2 billion figure even though there was plenty of evidence and data to say it was not going to be enough.

So if you’re wondering why your road is awful, it basically comes down to this – a refusal through the previous decade and the latter part of the 20th century to install a funding system that could keep up with inflation, the defeat of such a system by House Republicans who objected to a large gasoline tax in 2014 in favor of the infamous Proposal 1 of 2015 that voters crushed and the 2015 plan that lacked sufficient revenue and pushed off the new spending for years.

Get used to those “Rough Road” signs popping up everywhere and shelling out for new tires.

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