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The Detroit News: Michigan can't delay water, road repairs

Monday, December 17, 2007   (0 Comments)
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The deterioration of Michigan's infrastructure doesn't stop just because the state is in economic hard times. Water lines continue to crack, and roads keep crumbling.

All that changes is the ability of the state and local communities to keep ahead of repairs.

It's understandable that suburban water customers are upset by water rate increases averaging 8.6 percent -- and topping 20 percent in at least a dozen communities. It's a tough blow to household budgets already strained by state tax hikes and declining incomes.

But Michigan has to keep investing in its infrastructure or the future tab will be unmanageable. Already, the state has dangerously shortchanged repairs to water lines, sewers, roads and bridges, leading to an escalating backlog of essential upgrades.

Much of the water rate hike will go to capital improvements -- increasing delivery capacity, repairing lines and replacing worn-out pipes. The money raised won't be near enough to cover the billions of dollars in upgrades the system needs, but it is better than ignoring the problem altogether.

Water users can expect future rate hikes as large or larger than the one announced last week if the water system is to be responsibly maintained. Saving a few bucks a month now will only delay the inevitable big payout.

The same is true for roads, though the fix is not as simple as hiking monthly water bills.

Road builders say at least a 9-cent-a-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax is needed just to keep up with repairs. But the $1.5 billion tax increase adopted by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the Legislature this fall killed the appetite in Lansing for additional taxes of any sort.

Chances are slim for getting approval for a jump in the fuel tax, particularly since gasoline prices are hovering around $3 a gallon.

So the road builders are kicking around a new scheme to divert part of the sales tax on gasoline to road projects.

That's not a bad idea. Most states don't levy a separate sales tax on gasoline, and since the tax is paid by highway users, a case can be made for using it to keep the roads smooth.

But three quarters of the sales tax now goes to support the public schools. It's not likely the Legislature will rob the schools to fatten the road fund.

And yet the needs of the infrastructure can't wait. Michigan is famous for putting off tough choices. Leaving the costly work of rebuilding roads and water lines to the next generation of taxpayers isn't an acceptable option.

State residents must accept the fact that they'll have to dig deeper into their pockets to keep their infrastructure up-to-date.

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