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Roads and Motorists’ Money at Stake in Michigan

Fri February 03, 2012 - Midwest Edition

LANSING, Mich. (AP) Gov. Rick Snyder said it makes financial sense to start paying more to fix roads now rather than wait and face an even bigger annual repair bill in the future.

The Republican governor — a certified public accountant by training — is pushing lawmakers to raise an additional $1.4 billion a year for roads and bridges, and he wants to start the process sooner rather than later.

“When you’re talking transportation infrastructure, you should have a 10- or 20-year mindset,” Snyder told The Associated Press the day after his recent State of the State address. “This is the accountant coming out in me again. By investing $1.4 billion a year over 20 years on our roads, it saves us money.”

Organizations supporting more transportation funding say the gap between what’s spent to maintain roads and the amount of money needed to properly do the job grows every year. Most politicians in Lansing agree that the state needs to do more to repair roads and bridges. The problem arises when talk turns to asking drivers to pay more for improvements.

A bipartisan set of bills that will rekindle that discussion was expected to be introduced in the Legislature in January.

The initial proposal could include raising annual vehicle registration fees by an average of roughly $60 a year, according to the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association. Higher vehicle registration fees would raise more money and ensure that electric and hybrid vehicle owners, who buy little or no fuel, are paying more toward road upkeep.

The upcoming proposal also might replace the state’s 19-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and the 15-cents-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel with a tax on the wholesale price of fuel, potentially raising more money than the current system.

It’s hard to tell what the final proposal might look like as backers try to gain support in a Republican-led Legislature hesitant to approve tax or fee increases. But supporters are banking on bipartisan support. They hope the need to fix potholes and make other transportation system improvements will win out in the end.

“I don’t think anything, when you’re talking about more revenue, is easy,” said Rep. Rick Olson, a Republican from Saline who last year helped lead a bipartisan study that called for more investment in roads. “But I do think it’s possible. It’s a generally recognized need. No one’s arguing whether there’s a need or not.”

There are different measures and projections of Michigan road quality, but none of them look good over the next five to 10 years at current funding levels.

The Michigan Department of Transportation said nearly 89 percent of the pavement on its “trunkline” road or interstate and highway system was in good or fair condition in 2011. That would drop to about 44 percent by 2020 without increased investment.

A broader review covering Michigan roads eligible for federal aid reported 65 percent of pavement in good or fair condition in 2010, meaning one of every three miles was rated in poor condition. The Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council report projects that 50 percent will be in good or fair shape in 2015.

“Everybody knows that our roads here in Michigan are just in terrible shape,” Mike Nystrom of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association said during Friday’s taping of public television’s “Off the Record” program. “Our roads are crumbling, the bridges are dangerous.”

Some key business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, also support more investment in roads.

Still, there will be resistance to higher fees and taxes, or at least resistance to raising motorists’ costs without demanding efficiencies.

Some lawmakers are focused on a plan to allow counties to get rid of local road commissions and absorb their duties to cut administration costs.

Other ideas include moving some of the 6 percent sales tax now collected on fuel to road funding rather than going to the state’s general fund. The portion of the sales tax going to public schools and local governments would not be affected.

“We need to look at the current accountability and efficiency of the system that we have, to make sure that every dollar we are bringing in is used in the best way possible,” said Ari Adler, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger.

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