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Dwindling Funds Mean Quick Fixes for Mich. Roads

Tue September 27, 2011 - Midwest Edition

DETROIT (AP) Road work in Michigan has become more about quick fixes than long-term repairs as the state balances the scope of construction projects with the dwindling funds necessary to carry them out.

Beginning Oct. 1 and stretching into the 2015 fiscal year, state transportation officials expect a reduction of more than $700 million annually in highway program funds due to a drop in state revenue and predictions that Michigan will not be able to put up enough matching money to secure all available federal aid unless it takes steps to raise revenue.

Roads and bridges built to last 20 years, 50 years and even longer are deteriorating across the country, leaving Michigan and many other states to do more patch work because long-term repairs are too expensive.

“Chip and seal. That’s the only way to try and repair roads in the short term,” said state Minority House leader Richard Hammel, a Democrat from Flushing. “That is just a temporary fix and it tears the heck out of cars and trucks.

“It’s a good sign that the feds are still willing to put money into our infrastructure. We have to step up.”

Michigan’s Five-Year Transportation Program projects the state will have just over $6 billion to invest in highway, aviation, bus, rail and marine programs during that period. Half is earmarked for system preservation through the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges.

But to match all available federal aid, $120 million to $160 million more in state revenue is needed each fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

“We need to take better care of, and spend, our money more wisely. That will help offset the lack of funding,” said Mike Kowall, vice chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee. “I was always taught you never go with the low bid. The state has been going with the low bid. Could it be that we need to examine the type of concrete, type of materials that are going into our roads?”

Kowall, a Republican from Oakland County’s White Lake Township, said the state is getting less revenue from its 19-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax dedicated to transportation projects. Lawmakers in Lansing are examining a possible pilot program that would tax miles traveled instead of a per-gallon tax. Available technology in cell phones and GPS systems would work with specialized gas pumps to determine the number of miles traveled, he said.

It would be directed by region, so Southeast Michigan would receive more tax dollars for road work than parts of the state that are less traveled, Kowall added.

“Right now, all money is thrown into a pot and everybody fights over it,” he said.

Business and road-building groups have called on legislators to raise the state gasoline and diesel taxes or vehicle registration fees or place a tax on wholesale gasoline sales to raise more money for roads and bridges, but lawmakers have been reluctant to raise taxes or fees.

Problems are worse in Detroit, other large cities and heavily populated counties where the daily wear and tear on overly used streets and highways have left many scarred and gouged. Roads and bridges in some less-populated areas, like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, are a little better off, although some big projects have been pushed out a few years.

A year ago, lawmakers had to cobble together a last-minute mix of short-term notes, driver’s license fees and savings from other areas to raise $84 million needed to qualify for $492 million in federal funds after gasoline tax revenues weren’t enough to win the entire federal match.

Michigan might get some help in coming years to find the funds needed to unlock its federal match through a plan to build a new commuter bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Canadian officials have been pushing for the new international span, which could compete with the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge.

Government officials in Canada have pledged to give Michigan nearly $500 million to cover the state’s costs for the plaza leading to the bridge on the Detroit side. Federal transportation officials have said Michigan can use that money as matching funds for federal dollars, enabling the state to spend $1.3 billion on transportation in the budget year that starts Oct. 1.

“The matching money from the bridge is a way of leveraging more money,” Hammel said. “For us, we’re sitting here where we don’t have the revenue to fix the roads or the bridges crumbling around us.”

Not all in Lansing are ready to accept a big check from Canada, however. Last year the House, then controlled by Democrats, approved the bridge project along with the Canadian money. The GOP-controlled Senate voted it down.

Republicans now control both chambers, and GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is finding the bridge project a hard sell among members of his own party.

Wayne County Commissioner Kevin McNamara thinks the answer to the road repair funding crisis may be to take the state out of the equation by allowing local governments to come up with a general fund match to capture federal dollars.

“We’re all going to have to tell the state that ’we don’t like what you’re doing to our roads, and if you are not going to fix them then we are going to have to leapfrog you,’” said McNamara, a Democrat from Canton Township, west of Detroit. “You will find that about 75 percent of local road millage taxes get passed in Michigan. But in the Legislature, the first commandment is ’no new taxes.”’

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