OP-ED: The road funding conversation needs a complete reset

by NATHAN INKS

Multiple studies on Michigan road funding have confirmed that the state needs approximately $2.5 billion in additional road funding in order to get 90% of the state’s roads in good or fair condition. For reference, as of the end of 2018 only 78.9% of Michigan’s roads are in such condition; since the turn of the century, this 90% goal has only been achieved during a period of four years ending in 2011. While the state should certainly do more to increase the lifetime of roads, simply increasing the quality of materials and reducing wasteful spending will not get the state anywhere to where it needs to be. There is no reasonable dispute that increased road funding is necessary— whether that is achieved through increasing revenue or taking funds from other budget items.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s road funding plan, a $0.45 gas tax increase, has been met with significant public opposition. An April poll of likely voters by Marketing Resource Group found opposition at 75% and support at 21%; even 58% of self-identifying Democrats were opposed. However, that same poll found that a plurality of respondents, 44%, rank roads and infrastructure as their number one concern.

This mismatch ultimately comes down to poor planning by the Whitmer administration prior to the rollout of her proposal. Perhaps the biggest flaw in Whitmer’s plan is that she failed to explain to Michiganders why a gas tax increase is necessary before proposed it. Residents will naturally be opposed to any tax increase if they do know or understand why it is necessary.

This lack of understanding is widespread. One popular allegation recently circulating social media claimed that lottery revenue, the 1994 sales tax increase, and casino tax revenue had been promised to go toward roads, yet the roads are still bad; therefore, the state should not impose an increased gas tax when it has not used other money as promised in the past. These claims are completely false, as road funding was never a part of those tax increases; however, if Michiganders are under the false impression that money is not being spent where it was promised to be spent, they will undoubtedly be mistrustful of a tax increase pledged toward fixing the roads.

Recognizing the unpopularity of the proposed gas tax increase, the Senate Republicans’ proposed transportation budget did not include the tax increase. Instead, a measly $132 million would be spent on roads sooner than previously allocated. Governor Whitmer has threatened to veto any budget that does not meaningfully address road funding, while Republicans in the legislature wish to pass a budget first and deal with the issue of roads separately.

Neither Whitmer’s swift response with a veto threat nor the Republicans’ unwillingness to address roads as part of the regular budget process instills much confidence that the two sides will be able to reach an agreement to actually fix the roads. While some Michiganders may bristle at such a hasty veto threat, the Governor has little ability to negotiate when Republicans do not plan to come to the negotiating table until the summer. Objections to new taxes and calls to decrease wasteful spending may resonate with the GOP base, but actually finding $2.5 million to cut will prove to be next to impossible. The Republican plan will need to at least partially rely on a revenue increase.

The entire roads conversation needs a reset. Before a meaningful conversation can take place, both Republicans and Democrats in Lansing need to commit to educating voters about the current state of road funding in an honest and objective manner. Political posturing will not fill the potholes, and any alternative to Whitmer’s gas tax increase is likely to be just as unpopular if Michiganders do not fully understand why additional revenue is necessary to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure.