The Road Funding Issue

By Aram Kalousdian, Editor | September 28, 2010

"There is not going to be a state gas tax increase in the near future for a couple of reasons," Tim Skubick, senior capitol correspondent, anchor and producer of public television's "Off the Record" said at the County Road Association of Michigan 2008 Annual Highway Conference in Lansing in March.

"The gas tax is not like an income tax increase, but it still has the phrase 'tax increase' attached to it. So, in Lansing, there is a strong aversion to doing anything that even looks or smells like a tax increase. There are some strong arguments against the gas tax. As you know, it's not linked to inflation and vehicles are getting better mileage, so it's not collecting as much revenue as it used to. So, even from a substantive standpoint, the gas tax is probably toast. But, from a political standpoint it is as well. There is no will to go there at all.

"So, what the state legislature and the governor have done is create a special committee to study the issue. And, interestingly enough, the study will not come out with its recommendations on an alternative to the gas tax until after the next election." Skubick mentioned the governor's announced acceleration of approximately $150 million worth of projects.

"We are robbing from Peter to pay Paul. The $150 million she is accelerating is your summer money. At some point, you have to pay the piper. The gas tax is not like the income tax, because the people know where their money is going when it comes to the gas tax. It's a huge thing, but there are no political guts in this town to take that on right now. So, let's see what happens." State Representative Daniel Acciavatti, vice chair of the Michigan House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, reported that revenues from vehicle registration fees are declining.

"Registration fees are taking a pretty substantial hit. It is projected to take a bigger hit. In my opinion it is due to the fact that Michigan is struggling in the jobs category. We are losing population and less of our residents are buying vehicles. Many times they are getting rid of their second vehicle," Acciavatti said.

"The second area is our state gas and diesel taxes. Again, if we are continuing down the path of struggling with jobs and struggling with population, that fund is going to be stagnant to no growth, or a slight decline coupled with the fact that we are approaching $4 per gallon of gasoline.

"The third area is our federal program. We have had some good news in the last couple of years with respect to federal revenue brought into the state; however, I would say that the federal Highway Trust Fund is shaky at best right now. I think you're going to see some pretty substantial declines there.

"So, looking forward into our transportation fund, we have a revenue source that is declining or stagnant and we all know what's happening to our costs."

State Representative Hoon-Yung Hopgood, chair of the Michigan House of Representatives Transportation Committee, said that the committee will be looking at a local option for funding road construction.

"One of the things that we are going to be looking at in committee, and I'm not going to make an overly broad commitment, is a local option proposal. The big piece of it would be a local sales tax and that would require a change in the state constitution, which obviously requires bipartisan support in the legislature," Hopgood said.

State Representative Tom Casperson, a member of the House Transportation Committee, suggested that part of the state sales tax be diverted to road funding. "I've heard that gasoline could hit $4 per gallon. If that's the case, forget the task force, let's start doing this today. Let's put a cap on this thing and say that any more money that's going to come in because of added cost of gasoline is going to be put into the roads," Casperson said.

State Senator Jud Gilbert, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said that he believes that the state must move away from user fees to a broader-based tax to fund road construction.

"I base that argument on this: If you look at the education fund, we have everyone paying for education whether they benefit directly from that or not. Everyone benefits from having an educated society. I think the same thing holds true with transportation. It's broader than just people who drive on the roads. As a matter of fact, I think that you could make the argument that those who take public transportation are getting a free ride, so to speak. So, I think we should broaden that and have a dedicated source," Gilbert said.

Dale Lighthizer, Ph.D., P.E., Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) supervising engineer, told attendees that there were approximately 315,000 crashes, 82,000 injuries, and many fatalities on Michigan roads in 2006.

"I think we can all agree that this is unacceptable in terms of loss of life. We had 1,084 fatalities in 2006. I believe the fatality count for 2007 is approximately 1,084. So, we've leveled off. We had a steady decline in the fatalities in our state in the last five years," Lighthizer said.

"Approximately 60 percent of fatalities occur on local roads. What this all comes to is the need for us to approach this in some kind of partnership and that's part of what the Strategic Highway Safety Plan is all about."

The Strategic Highway Safety Plan involves identifying critical safety problems. The overall goal is to reduce serious injuries and fatalities on Michigan's roads. Planning activities must be taken into account, along with what Lighthizer described as the four "Es" in highway safety — enforcement, engineering, education, and emergency medical services.

"As a result of a section of the federal Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) legislation, we're required as a state to have a strategic highway safety plan. Michigan was working on the Strategic Highway Safety Plan before it became a requirement," Lighthizer said. The current Strategic Highway Safety Plan was signed by Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2006. Lighthizer said that the Strategic Highway Safety Plan will be updated.

"When the original plan was adopted here in Michigan, the state adopted what was then an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) goal of reducing fatalities to a rate of 1.0 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008. The good news is that we're in 2008 and we estimate that the fatality rate in Michigan is about 1.04 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. So, we're approaching that," Lighthizer said.

"That doesn't mean that our job is done. It means that it's a time for us to reassess what our goals are going to be and perhaps redefine our goals. I think that in the future plan, we'll adopt a goal that doesn't report itself in terms of a fatality rate. In all likelihood it will set goals and reduce the number of deaths."

In 2004, the state of Michigan received some incentive grant funds that were put into local intersections. "We continue to work with local agencies to improve traffic safety," Lighthizer said.

Lighthizer said that MDOT is evaluating the performance and usefulness of roundabouts with respect to safety. Lanes have been added to roadways in order to improve operations.

"Work zones continue to be a problem in our state. Early numbers for 2007 suggest that work zone crashes went up 11 percent over 2006. We're taking a new look at what we can do. We're going to get serious about speeding in the work zones," Lighthizer said. He said that 2008 will be the first year that zero-tolerance speed cameras will be used in work zones.

William M. McEntee, of the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) and a member of the Asset Management Council, reported that between 2005 and 2007, of the 40,000 miles of federal-aid roadways in Michigan, over 10,000 lane miles deteriorated from good condition to poor condition. "That's 10,000 miles of road that could've been preserved and protected through capital preventive maintenance and have now fallen to a condition where they require substantial financial investment," McEntee said.

"Substantial miles of road have deteriorated over the last two years, and my suspicion is that that will increase in the next year."