Michigan's road debate continues. The proponents of tax increases have an extremely strong lobbying base. They have incessantly pushed a false narrative that our roads cannot be fixed without tax increases despite our citizens already being subject to the 5th highest gas taxes in the country. After having served as Vice Chairman of the Senate Transportation Subcommittee on Appropriations for the past four years, I happen to have a different opinion. Let me be clear. I want to fix the roads as much as anyone. The key difference is that I know that we can do so without having to dig deeper into the pockets of families struggling to make ends meet.
Here are some simple facts for Michigan citizens to consider. When I started my service in the legislature four years ago, our state budget was $46.8B. The last budget that we enacted for FY2014-2015 was $53.1B. That is an increase of $6.3B. $1.1B of that increase went towards education. $840M of that increase has already gone towards our roads. That leaves $4.3B unaccounted for in our list of budget priorities.
What are the odds that most folks would find most, if not all, of the spending items associated with this $4.3B less important than fixing our roads? Would we raise taxes to pay for film incentives? Would we raise taxes to pay for other corporate incentive packages? The funds for these programs could be used for roads, yet we are being sold a narrative that we need a tax increase to pay for our roads. Why not push the tax increase discussion onto these programs instead?
Compound these observations with the fact that a significant portion of our transportation budget does not go towards fixing our roads. In fact, did you know that 10% of the taxes collected under the most recent bill that the Senate passed to increase gas taxes would go towards rail and mass transit programs? Diverting funds to rail and mass transit will not fix a single pothole. Funny, but I don't recall trains and busses being part of the "Just fix the roads" propaganda blitz. Do you?
Against this backdrop, I maintain that we do not get the bang for the road funding buck that we deserve in Michigan. In earlier editorials, I cited findings from the 20th Annual Highway Report compiled by the Reason Foundation. It stated that MI spends 53% more per mile than the national average on our roads. Their latest study shows that MI still spends 27% more per mile than the national average and 7% more per lane-mile than the national average. Despite this spending level, our road conditions have consistently ranked 40th or worse.
When I cite such figures, I am assaulted by proponents of increased taxes who point out the influence of our winter climate on our poor road conditions. Minnesota, not exactly a winter getaway for warm weather enthusiasts, spends 18% less per mile than the national average yet has higher rural road quality. Truck weights are also cited as a major contributor to the poor quality of our roads. I'm all for lowering truck weights. In fact, the Senate has passed legislation to do just that, but, as an engineer, I am bothered by the lack of fundamental engineering data on this topic. Despite years of inquiries, I have yet to find a specification that connects the dots between how long our roads should last under a given load profile and the road designs that we build. If one is interested in roads that last longer, as I am, it makes it very difficult to analyze the impact of truck weights and longer life road designs without this data.
The good news is that we all seem to agree that we need to fix our roads. The bad news is that there are still too many folks who choose to make their point by misrepresenting the views of folks like me who do not believe that we need to raise taxes. Proponents of tax increases have poured significant time and money into making us believe that tax increases are the only "rational" solution to our road woes. Meanwhile, our citizens continue to pour out the fruits of their labor towards satisfying government's insatiable appetite for more of their hard-earned money.
Tax increases should always be the last option considered. All too often, though, they are the first. It is about time that we changed our priorities.