Commentary: The Budget and the roads

Feb 8, 2013

The house I live in is 84 years old. Two winters ago, an ancient sewer pipe broke under our basement. This meant a mess and fairly expensive work. Was that convenient? No. Could we have spent that money in ways that would have been a lot more fun? Absolutely. But building and using an outhouse in the middle of a Michigan winter didn’t seem an appealing alternative.

Which brings us to the governor’s transportation budget. He wants to increase the gas tax by 14 cents a gallon and increase car and light truck annual registration fees by 60 percent, which sounds pretty steep. They say that will cost, on an average, $120 a year per car. It will cost me more, since I drive 30,000 miles a year. Money is tight for a lot of us.

But here’s something we all need to realize. This bill is absolutely essential. Actually, I don’t think the governor is calling for enough of an increase, and here’s why:

First of all, these aren’t funds designed to build a new bridge to nowhere or to widen I-75. This is meant to raise money just to maintain the roads we have now and bring them into good condition.

According to the non-partisan, non-profit Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, 88 percent of Michigan roads eligible for federal funding were in good or fair shape eight years ago. Two years ago, that was down to 65 percent. But half of our roads and streets aren’t eligible for federal funding, and only ten percent of those were in good condition.

A leading trucking magazine recently rated our roads the second worst in the nation.

Bad roads are already costing drivers far more than the governor wants us to pay to fix them. This is a result of many years of not spending sufficient money to maintain our roads, and especially, the fault of the legislature. For two years, they’ve ignored similar calls from the governor to fix the roads. Lawmakers have been very eager to lower taxes and make this a right to work state. But do they really think businesses are going to come or expand here when our roads and bridges are falling apart?

By the way, this is kind of like dental work. When we put off dealing with the problem, it becomes not only more painful, but far more expensive to fix. The Michigan Department of Transportation says the cost of returning a poor road to good condition can be five times as much as promptly fixing it once it has slipped into fair condition. 

What’s depressing is that there are lunatic groups like the Americans for Prosperity which claim we don’t need to raise taxes to fix the roads. But I am encouraged by something State Senator Roger Kahn, chair of the appropriations committee, said yesterday.

Nobody ever called Kahn a liberal. But he said earlier this week, his chief of staff was driving to work, and a guy in front of her hit a pothole and a piece of concrete went through her windshield. He said he wanted enough money to prevent that. We should all urge his colleagues to see the light as well.               

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.