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Governor Pleads for Road Funding, But Details Are UnclearPrint

Thriving Communities | January 17, 2013 | By James Bruckbauer

In his third State of the State address, he asked the Legislature to come up with a way to raise about $1.2 billion dollars that he says is needed to fix the state’s roads, bridges, buses, and trains.

Last night, Gov. Rick Snyder made it clear that tackling the road-funding question will be a major priority for his administration in 2013.  

In his third State of the State address, he asked the Legislature to come up with a way to raise about $1.2 billion that he says is needed to fix the state’s roads, bridges, buses, and trains.

“Transportation is the toughest single issue we face in Michigan,” he said. “We can decide how long we want to argue about it, how political we want to make it, or we can just use some common sense and get it done.”

He’s right. The state that brought modern transportation to the rest of the world is now fractured by crumbling roads, congestion, airport and train delays, and poor bus service, while other places around the world invest heavily in quality streets, commuter trains, rapid transit, and first-class passenger rail. 

But how to pay for it? The governor said wants to change the current retail-based gas tax to a percentage tax based on the wholesale rate of fuel. He also wants to increase motor-vehicle registration fees across the state and allow counties to levy their own registration fees so they can pay for their own locally determined projects.

But details about how the new dollars would be spent are still unclear.

In fact, many citizen groups around the state, including MLUI, have long challenged how the state spends its transportation dollars. Instead of making existing roads more efficient, the transportation department has continued to build questionable highway bypasses and other projects that don't really solve the congestion problem. A perfect expample is the department's hotly contested plans to spend billions widening I-75 and I-94 through urban Detroit.

And the tussle over financing continues, too.

Proposals for statewide transportation tax increases are making their way into House and Senate chambers. Sen. Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw) is expected to introduce a package of bills that would raise state revenue, including a proposal to raise the gas tax by 2 cents per gallon.

Sen. Howard Walker, (R-Traverse City) however, has a different idea. He’s expected to introduce legislation that would eliminate the per-gallon gas tax altogether and replace it with an additional 1 percent retail sales tax.

There is another financing idea gaining traction that has support from many groups across the state: Allow communities to determine the best way to pay for local transportation projects.

That might sound radical, but elsewhere in the U.S. that's just business as usual. That reflects just how much state lawmakers are holding cities back. Elsewhere in the county, cities use tools like property transfer fees, local sales taxes, and local mileage-based fees to help pay for and build the kind of street and transit networks that most Michiganders can only envy, not acually use.

Michigan's local governments, however, only have one option for raising transportation dollars: property tax millages. As other states demonstrate, there is a better way, and it's important that local units have other options beyond property taxes, which are increasingly difficult to raise, for funding.

Our own Grand Traverse County offers a fine example. Here, the county road commission may yet again ask voters to pay more property taxes to pay for maintaining and clearing county roads, even though recent attempts at this request have failed.

And while so many people in our region strongly support the area’s bus and bicycle network and maintaining the existing roads, they continue to turn down commission requests.

Would a more localized approach to funding all transportation needs recieve friendlier reception? Perhaps.

But, in the meantime, the next vote should offer more details on how their hard-earned money would be spent, and assurances that money will not just be spent on road repairs, but on infrastucture that supports biking, walking, and safe access to transit.

Clearly, these local and state proposals need more sorting out over the next few months in order to come up with a thoughtful, informed approach.

So look for an MLUI series on local options for funding transportation in the coming weeks.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at