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Report: Michigan Must Double Spending on Bridges, Roads

Wed September 10, 2008 - Midwest Edition

LANSING, Mich. (AP) Michigan needs to double its spending on roads and bridges or many will keep deteriorating and become unsafe, said a report to a task force studying how to pay for transportation projects without raising the state’s gasoline tax.

The report issued July 21 estimated $6.1 billion a year is required for basic improvements to Michigan’s roads and bridges. That’s about twice current spending and a significantly bigger increase than previously suggested by business groups and some lawmakers.

“The status quo essentially guarantees our transportation system will continue to collapse,” said Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell, who chairs the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation Funding.

The 19-member panel, which Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed, spent four months analyzing the financial needs of everything from roads to public transit. The report was being delivered July 21 in Traverse City to Granholm’s Transportation Funding Task Force, which will recommend alternative ways to pay for the state’s transportation system.

Legislation to boost existing sources of revenue — the 19-cent-a-gallon gas tax and vehicle registration fees — has received little interest from Granholm or legislators.

The report said Michigan’s roads are worse than those in most other states and will become increasingly congested, unplowed, dangerous and riddled with potholes unless more money is invested. Michigan’s failure to maintain its roads is leading to a declining quality of life and reduced economic competitiveness, according to the report.

“Bold action is required now,” the advisory committee said in the report.

Starting in 2010, the state and local governments will lose an average of $950 million a year for road projects because the state won’t be able afford up-front spending required to get matching federal dollars, the report said.

It said the cost of fuel, trucks and asphalt is soaring while revenues are declining after staying stagnant for nearly a decade. Part of the problem is motorists are buying less gas, reducing the amount of money the state collects from the gas tax.

Even before the recent spike in gas prices, critics complained about relying on gas tax revenue for road funding in a state with little population growth, in the age of more fuel-efficient vehicles and advances in alternative fuel cars.

“One of the things we’re learning as a task force is that a transportation funding system based on motor fuel taxes is increasingly obsolete,’’ said Rich Studley, president and chief executive of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Studley, who co-chairs the 13-member task force, said the panel will ramp up discussions about spending needs and alternative funding ideas.

“I don’t think anyone on the task force is under the illusion the problem is a small one or will be easily resolved,’’ he said.

Besides looking at roads and bridges, the advisory committee also said public transit, airports, railroads and other parts of the transportation system need more money because costs are rising and freight coming into Michigan is expected to double by 2035.

The state now spends about $3.2 billion a year for its transportation system.

The report to the task force says $6.1 billion annually is needed for “good’’ improvements. Bringing the system into a “better’’ condition requires $12.6 billion a year.

“They’re going to see this is a pretty drastic need we’re talking about,’’ Keith Ledbetter, a member of the advisory committee who represents the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, a construction industry trade group.

The last state gas tax increase came in 1997, when it went from 15 cents a gallon to 19 cents. Some have proposed a 9-cent increase spread over three years and increasing vehicle registration fees 50 percent.

But lawmakers and Granholm late last year instead created the task force and advisory committee to explore alternatives to fuel taxes. Preliminary recommendations are due Oct. 31, with a final report to follow by April 1, 2009.

“Everyone on the committee is very mindful [that] we have a lot of people experiencing economic challenges,’’ Studley said. “Whatever we come up with has to be meaningful but also has to be practical and responsible.”

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