Lansing State Journal: Michigan's road budget just a quick fix, some say
Friday, January 28, 2011
At first glance, it may appear that Gov. Rick Snyder's recent deal to secure $550 million in matching federal money for transportation may pave over a funding crisis that has plagued the state for years.
But road advocates say the deal is akin to merely patching a pothole in the budget - and doesn't address the state's long-term needs.
During his State of the State address Jan. 19, the Republican governor announced the feds had agreed to Michigan using $550 million from the Canadian government - funds that Canada offered to front Michigan's share of building a bridge between Windsor and Detroit - to leverage as much as $2 billion in federal funding for roads.
State transportation officials say the state likely will spread its matching funds over several years, allowing it to avoid a last-minute, desperate scramble to match federal highway dollars. Last year, lawmakers feared the state might lose $475 million in funding until they finally found $84 million in matching funds.
But even without that annual drama of finding a match, Snyder's deal does not solve the state's long-term road funding crisis or remove the need for higher gas taxes, road advocates say.
"It gets the Legislature off the hook from having to provide the minimum level of investment for its infrastructure," said Keith Ledbetter, director of legislative affairs for the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, a statewide construction trade association.
"We will see continued decline in the pavement conditions until we find significant amounts of money." Snyder is still developing his budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and the Legislature still must approve the deal with Canada to build the bridge. Bill Shreck, acting director of communications for the state Department of Transportation, could not be reached for comment.
Fee increase favored
For years, MITA, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other transportation-related groups have favored some sort increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fees to bolster the state's transportation budget, which now is about $1.4 billion. These groups say transportation funding has fallen as revenue from gas taxes - which has not increased since 1997 - has plummeted due to new fuel efficiencies.
Last year, a study funded by the Chamber of Commerce recommended doubling vehicle registration fees and increasing the state gas tax from 19 cents to 38 cents.
Ledbetter said even if the state is available to provide the minimum level for federal transportation funds through 2020, roads will continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate.
This year, nearly 10 percent of the state's major roads are rated as having pavement in "poor condition," and, at current levels of funding, that number would rise seven-fold to 72 percent in 2020, according to a review by the state Department of Transportation. State officials say the cost of reconstruction roads rises as the pavement condition worsens.
No long-term fix
Monica Ware, spokeswoman for the County Road Association of Michigan agreed that Snyder's Canadian deal does little to solve Michigan's long-term funding problems. Last year, the association reported that falling gas revenues have hindered road commissions so much that 38 Michigan counties had returned 100 miles of road to gravel. "It's essential to the reinvention of Michigan that we're discussing statewide," Ware said of the need for increased funding. "We forget that the important link that we have in transportation (to economic development)."