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Michigan riding the roads to ruin

Nov 9, 2015

For the last three years, Governor Rick Snyder has been fighting to try to get the legislature to come up with the money to repair Michigan’s disgracefully bad roads and bridges.

The governor, like most of us, thought better roads were essential. The legislature agreed in principle, but for years, has been unwilling to pass the new taxes needed to fix the roads.

Well, last week we finally got a roads bill package which the governor is expected to sign this week, and I have to say the more I study it, the more it surprises even cynical old me. That’s because these bills manage to give us the worst of all worlds.

They raise taxes, dangerously and irresponsibly cut services, and on top of that, won’t fix the roads. Not for years, anyway. They don’t add any significant new money until 2018, and won’t start to deliver the full $1.2 billion promised until 2021, after virtually everyone now in state government will be gone, saved from the consequences of their bad choices by term limits.

Worse, these bills won’t ever supply enough money to get the roads to an acceptable standard. $1.2 billion may have been what was needed four years ago, when the governor first asked for new money to fix them. But the roads have continued to fall apart, and construction costs have gone up.

Last year, a former GOP state representative named Rick Olson got a couple of analysts to work with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to try and determine the true cost of what was really needed to fix the roads.

To quote their findings, “The bad news is that the total in the first year has risen again – to $2.183 billion.” That was in March 2014. Costs haven’t gone down, and the roads have continued to deteriorate. What struck me most about Olson’s study was its conclusion:

“The takeaway from this finding could well be that if political capital is to be expended, it would be advisable to actually fix the problem, rather than angering some taxpayers by raising taxes and still having them mad because the roads were not getting better.”

But that’s exactly what this does.

To be fair, there are a couple minor good things about this package. It does build inflation adjustments into the puny amount it raises fuel taxes. It brings parity to diesel taxes.

There are hidden small benefits for mass transit and buses, too. But on the whole this is dreadful, even without considering the harm to be done by cutting the general fund by $600 million a year, which this deal requires. Last summer, the governor said he couldn’t accept cuts that deep. Now he’s changed his mind.

Asked why, he said the money wouldn’t even be missed because the state’s economy is growing so fast.

But Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard told me yesterday that “there isn’t any reason to believe,” that. “In fact,” he said, “it’s possible that the spending cuts will slow the economy down a little,” especially if they have consequences like higher tuition.

Nevertheless, the governor will sign this. But whether looked at in the short, middle or long run, it is hard to see how this will be good for our state.

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