Commentary: Fix the roads

Feb 26, 2013

It’s supposed to snow tonight. I have a late meeting in downtown Detroit, and that worries me. Not because I am going to be in Detroit at night, or because I may be driving in snow. It’s because I may not be able to see the potholes going home. Years ago, I lost a wheel to one on the Lodge Freeway at midnight, and one experience like that was enough.

Governor Rick Snyder has proposed a plan to fix Michigan‘s disgracefully deteriorating roads, a plan that makes as close to sense as anything politicians ever propose.

Our roads will need a lot of investment over a long time -- at least $1.2 billion a year. The governor is proposing the fair and rational idea that the cost of fixing the roads should be paid for by the people who use them. He would raise the wholesale gas tax by 14 cents a gallon, a little more on diesel, and also raise car registration fees.

Nobody ever completely agrees with any tax. The one thing that bothers me about this one is that the governor would raise registration fees for regular cars and trucks by 60 percent. The registration fees for those huge commercial tractor-trailers meanwhile, would be hiked by only 25 percent, which doesn’t seem quite fair. But what’s needed is to get it done.

There are all sorts of people, however, who are throwing up roadblocks to fixing the roads. Some are nitwits, who apparently don’t travel that much, and who don’t think Michigan’s roads are that bad.

Others are Tea Party fanatics, who think there is vast hidden waste in government, and the money to fix the roads can be found in existing revenues, or by wringing waste fraud and abuse out of the system.

Some lawmakers are proposing nutty different ways of funding the roads, such as levying a sales tax on services.

Trust me. After the mess we had six years ago, in which the legislature briefly discussed balancing the budget by taxing those who bronze baby shoes, a sales tax on services isn’t going to fly. Discussing alternatives to any proposal is almost always a good idea, but in this case, if people begin boosting a dozen different road funding schemes, nothing, repeat nothing, is ever going to happen.

Usually spokesmen for business groups are the most reluctant to endorse tax increases. But that’s not the case here. Mike Johnston, the head lobbyist for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, told the Detroit News yesterday that “doing nothing is not an option.”

Jim Holcomb, who has a similar position with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday, “we don’t need more studies. We don’t need more groups to look at this. What we need is action.” He added that while the governor’s proposal would cost his members a lot, it is still the fairest way of fixing the roads, since, as he told the Gongwer news service, “you actually have a direct link between what you pay and the outcome."

What’s needed is for the legislative leadership to get together and get this done, as soon as possible, whether it is politically difficult or not. That, after all, is what political leaders are for.

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.

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