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Road conditions offer opportunity for change

Feb. 25, 2018

Crain’s Detroit Business

Chad Livengood

The treacherous state of metro Detroit’s roads is an opportunity to fix the pothole of a road-funding plan the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder agreed to less than three years ago.

That plan’s slow phase-in of $1.2 billion in new road funding has proven to be insufficient for tackling an infrastructure crisis posing a real threat to the state’s economy and safety of motorists.

The Legislature’s rush last week to approve $175 million for emergency road repairs as concrete was literally crumbling in real time is, at best, another Band-Aid to the 2015 road funding plan that won’t be fully funded until 2021.

This election-year window-dressing was mounted just as the pockmarked roads of metro Detroit were wreaking what felt like a week-long assault on the tires, rims and front-ends of countless personal and business vehicles.

Instead of being resigned to the national embarrassment of our roads, the current crisis is a chance for business leaders to push lawmakers to give counties the option to ask voters for county-level fuel and vehicle registration taxes. That money could be dedicated to fixing local roads that are the lifeblood of commerce.

In November of 2015, Snyder almost reluctantly agreed to the $1.2 billion road-funding plan, which relied upon $600 million in tax increases from motor fuel and vehicle registration fees that went into effect in January 2017.

The other half has yet to come — a $600 million bite out of the state’s $10 billion general fund that traditionally supports social services, prisons, business development and higher education.

It’s an earmark the next governor and Legislature could very well ax in the next recession.

Just a year into the actual funding of this scheme, there are pretty clear signs — or, in this case, holes in our roads — that the amount of money is insufficient for the needs, particularly when we get a winter like this with multiple freeze-and-thaw cycles that cause metro Detroit’s heavily trafficked roads to split wide open.

In Oakland County, there are 600 miles of roads rated in poor condition that need to be repaved. Last year, the Road Commission of Oakland County repaved 45 miles of county roads, which was a record, said Craig Bryson, senior manager of communications for the road commission.

At a rate of 45 miles of repaving each year, it will take 13 years to fix the roads in Michigan’s second-largest and arguably most politically influential county.

Less than 25 percent of Oakland County’s roads are rated as “good,” Bryson said. During the next 13 years, the good roads will become fair and the fair roads will become poor — and the cycle repeats.

“We’re not going to get roads in good condition on a large scale at this rate,” Bryson said.

Oakland County’s total state funding was about $60 million before the 2015 plan passed. When the plan is fully funded, Oakland County will have $100 million in state funds, most of which goes to maintenance and repaving, Bryson said.

“That will help us to begin to solve the road condition problem,” Bryson said. “It doesn’t do anything for the congestion problem, which presuming the economy remains strong, will just get worse.”

No new funding for widening or creating a boulevard along the congested Southfield Road.

No new funding for widening any of the mile roads that clog during morning and afternoon rush hours.

No new funding for public transit to cut down on congestion, get workers to jobs and attract new employers to the region.

Even with the full $1.2 billion in new funding, transportation leaders have been warning legislators, business leaders, drivers and taxpayers alike for years that Michigan’s roads are going to get worse before they get better.

A lot worse.

On just highways and state trunklines such as Gratiot, Woodward, Grand River and Michigan avenues, about 75 percent of the pavement is rated as being in good or fair condition, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

By 2021, when the 2015 road funding plan is fully funded, 57.5 percent of the state’s highways and trunklines will be rated in good or fair condition. By 2028, that good or fair condition rating is project to fall to less than 43 percent of the trunklines and highways, according to MDOT.

Before the Great Recession, a coalition in metro Detroit called Businesses for Better Transportation had lobbied lawmakers for the ability to raise new revenue locally that would bypass Act 51, the statewide funding formula law for local roads that was conceived when Harry Truman was president.

Act 51 is the third rail of road funding politics in Lansing — no one dares to try to reform it. And, because of term limits, no one really has time or long-term political clout to do so.

On a per capita basis, rural counties in the Upper Peninsula and west Michigan get more money through the formula than Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

That stalemate caused Businesses for Better Transportation to lobby to let counties ask voters for special taxes on fuel, vehicle registrations, driver’s licenses and real estate transfers and even a dedicated sales tax, which would require a constitutional amendment.

“Like a lot of stuff when it came to trying to get somebody to agree to allow us to increase taxes, it died on the vine, more or less,” said Roy Rose, chairman of Anderson, Eckstein & Westrick Inc., a Shelby Township-based civil engineering, architecture and surveying company that works in the road-building industry.

Thirty-seven other states allow some kind of locally-assessed vehicle tax and eleven states allow cities to impose local fuel taxes, according to a new report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Locally generated money could be applied differently by different communities — even to expand public transportation, said Melissa Roy, executive director of Advancing Macomb, a countywide business group.

“Then you’re talking about something that everybody recognizes as a need, and wants, and you’re addressing the transit,” Roy said.

Rose and Roy think the time has come to revisit the way local roads are funded and give voters in Southeast Michigan more local options besides countywide property taxes.

Business Leaders for Michigan and the Detroit Regional Chamber have long advocated for roads to be funded by users.

“This idea of having a local option for road funding does make an element of sense,” said Brad Williams, vice president of governmental affairs for the Detroit chamber.

Local road funding sources would reduce dependence on a Legislature often dominated by outstate members whose communities have different economic development needs and often better roads because they have less traffic and fewer of the dramatic freeze-and-thaw cycles that plague metro Detroit.

“Unfortunately, we as the taxpayers, the users … we’re going to have to flip the bill or switch everything back to gravel,” Rose said.

Read the original post from Crain’s Detroit Business here.