Grand Rapids Press Editorial: A new route to transportation funding in Michigan
Thursday, December 4, 2008
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A new route to transportation funding in Michigan
Despite the old adage about the road to Hell, good intentions don't pave anything. Money does, and very soon the state won't have nearly enough. A new way of paying for highways, bridges and mass transit must be found. Part of the solution should be a restructuring and increase of the state's gas tax, the prime driver of our transportation infrastructure.
That is the logical conclusion of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's Transportation Funding Task Force, which recently reviewed the sorry state of financing for Michigan roads. The group's sobering conclusion: Michigan is fast approaching a "crisis of infrastructure funding." If it does nothing, the state stands to lose $1 billion a year in federal funds, which the state must match at 20 percent. Road conditions will decline. Construction workers will lose jobs. Bus systems, which rely on the state transportation funds, too, will lose operational dollars.
The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association (MITA) has suggested a reasonable solution.
The group, which represents road builders, proposes eliminating the current 19-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline and the 15-cent-a-gallon tax on diesel fuel. In its place would go an 18 percent fuel tax for both diesel and gasoline. The 18 percent could apply to gas up to $2.99 a gallon. When the price increases, the percentage could decrease -- to 13 percent at $3, and 10 percent at $4. At $2 a gallon, motorists would pay about 9 cents more a gallon in taxes. The result would be a $1.5 billion annual bump in road funding.
The proposal would force long-needed parity between gas and diesel taxes. That diesel discount was a gift to hard-driving trucking industry lobbyists when lawmakers increased the gas tax by four cents in 1997.
Shifting to a percentage rather than a per-gallon cost would address the problem of declining tax revenues from decreased gas consumption. The decline is the inevitable result of more fuel efficient cars and cost-weary travelers who, before the current price reprieve, put on the brakes when they had to pay $4 a gallon.
MITA recommended, too, a 50 percent jump in vehicle registration fees, from $90 to about $135.
Those may not be exactly the right fee and tax levels. But the idea is the right one, to move the state toward a future without strut-crunching potholes and stranded federal dollars.
That said, the state cannot rely on gas taxes forever. Even with this altered structure, receipts from gas will continue rolling down hill. The vehicle fuel of the future may be coal-generated electricity, natural gas, even hydrogen. Lawmakers should continue to explore toll roads and other money-raising alternatives that look beyond the gas tax.
Whatever Michigan's economic future, our roads are vital to getting us there. Allowing them to deteriorate is a path too jarring to contemplate.