Stagnating before the Michigan Senate is a road improvement bill that passed the Michigan house 10 days ago. Though it’s not great, I hope they sign the bill. The bill would raise raise $600 million to $1.2 billion/year, an increase of $60 to $120 per person per year ratcheting up over the next six years. The first stage of the bill would take effect in October 2016, and would raise $400 million by increasing our car/ truck registration fees by about 40%. People with normal sedans would pay about $60 more per car per year. Those with more expensive, heavier vehicles would pay more. Though our registration fee is already among the highest in the nation, raising it further has the potential (It seems to me) to be the most fair and reasonable source of additional revenue. People with fancy cars, I imagine, are wealthy and those with heavy cars (I imagine) do the most road damage. This is the part of the bill that has proven the most contentious.
The next stage would begin in early 2018. It would raise $200 million by increasing Michigan diesel and gasoline taxes. The larger part would be on diesel fuel, an increase of 7.3 cents/gal presumably to soak out-of-state truckers who come through Michigan. These individuals deserve extra taxation, I imagine, because they don’t pay registration fees and probably damage our roads even more than those with fancy cars. Besides, they don’t vote in Michigan. The gas tax increase is smaller, 3.3 cents/ gal on regular gas, but Democrats are correct to point out that it is regressive. It takes a greater fraction from the poorer than from the rich. The hope is that, by the time the tax increase takes effect, we’ll have some inflation and also some more fuel-efficient cars so the bite won’t be as bad. Sorry to say, we already pay the 10th highest gas tax in the country.
The final phase of the road funding bill would not take full effect until 2021. The idea is to transfer $600 million from the general fund to pay for the roads with money left over to reduce home-owner taxes. Underlying the ability to do this is an assumption that Michigan industry and home prices will recover enough between now and then that we’ll be able to stop using the gasoline taxes to fund our schools, ideally with money left over from the regular income and sales tax. While I’d like to see this happen, and while this is possible given that the last few years have seen the state’s GDP recover at a 15.5+% growth rate (third highest in the nation) there is also a basis to say the assumptions are over- optimistic. On the other hand, the Democratic plan, based on 1.6% growth next year is likely over-pessimistic. As The Yogi says, “Predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.”
Whatever your views of the future, our roads are crumbling now, and new money is needed to fix them now before they get worse. If taxes must be raised, I’m inclined to do it with use -taxes, that is by charging those who use the services most. This is a philosophical preference of mine. Not all Republicans agree with this, and only one House Democrat has signed on so far. It was the view of the old-time, labor Democrats I grew up with, but not of today’s Democrats who prefer to tax “the rich” for any and all goods and services. Their point: that there are struggling, poor people who drive heavy, expensive cars. They’ve something of a point on the heavy cars, but I have less sympathy for the rest. I wrote a comic story about a poor guy trying to dispose of an expensive car, a Viper. My guess is that struggling rappers and poser politicians would not find it funny.
Dollars per capita spent on roads, 2013. From MDoT’s road funding proposal.
Part of the way that MDoT (the Michigan Department of Transportation) justified its target of $600 million to $1.2 billion was by comparison with surrounding states — not my favorite way of analysis. The MDoT graphic shows that Michiganians spend about $57 less per capita on roads than folks in Illinois, Wisconsin, or Ohio, and about $100 less than folks in Indiana or Pennsylvania. Multiply $57 by our state’s population, 10 million, and they conclude we should spend some $570 million more per year. Multiply by $100, and you get $1.0 billion.
While the need for at least $600 million/year sounds about right, I note that the per-capita spending justification seems dubious. If you calculate instead on the basis of dollars per lane-mile, as below, you find that Michiganians are already paying more per mile than Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Indiana. You’ll also note that Ohio and Illinois pays about 1 1/2 times as much their roads aren’t much better. A major part of the variation, I suspect, is corruption, and the rest, I guess is incompetence. Illinois, perhaps the most corrupt state in the mid-west, has seen 4 of its past 5 governors go to jail, along with innumerable Chicago Aldermen and lesser officials. Citizens of Illinois pay for this corruption in over-size construction projects, and over-size construction fees. After the $600 million increase, we’ll pay $8,950 per lane mile suggesting we are still not quite as costly per lan-mile as Illinois or Ohio. If it turns out we need the full $1.2 billion extra, it will suggest we are even more incompetent or corrupt than Illinois.
Road funding state by state comparison, from the same MDoT report, 2013.
An ideal way I’d like to reduce the costs of Michigan’s roads would be to reduce corruption, a trend that’s already helped to revitalize Detroit since the Justice department jailed the mayor and his father plus some associates for “pay for play”. I’m sure it also helped to remove the chief of police (millions in his ceiling) and Bobby Ferguson of the useless, expensive Jail project and Guardian building scandal.
It’s somewhat hard to judge the level of general incompetence in a state, and even harder to find a fix. Minnesota had a bridge collapse in 2007, and we had the Zilwaukee in 1982 (and 2008), the 9 mile bridge collapse of 2009, and the Southfield overpass collapse of 2014. It’s been proposed that we should be able to fix both our corruption and our incompetence problems by holding the contractors responsible for any failures. If only it were that easy. Holding contractors responsible might get some contractors to allow the concrete cure for longer periods under water before opening a road, but I’m not sure the public would stand for it. A more-likely outcome is that crooked contractors would charge more for the same bad work, and then go bankrupt as soon as the road fails. If their company were appropriately structured, they could re-appear the next day: the same people and equipment, operating under a new corporate name.
The biggest single incompetence issue that I can see appears to be poor under-road drainage. In Oakland county, where I am, the drain department looks responsible for the major flood of last summer. We’ve had rains this big in previous years without this massive flooding. I suspect a lack of dry-wells, but don’t know. From what I see, the drainage is bad beneath many Oakland roads, too. It seems like the concrete slabs are not deteriorating as much as they are coming apart. That’s a sign of bad drainage. I also see sink-holes, new lakes, and places where the sidewalks sink. Again, that’s a sign of bad drainage; a sign there is a swamp near or beneath the road. If the ground below a major road is a swamp, there is no practical way a contractor can build a long-lasting road over it. Until the drains get better, or the corruption subsides, we’re going to have to replace the roads often at a cost of another $600 million/year. We might as well acknowledge our problems and sign the bill.
Robert Buxbaum, November 2-3, 2015. If you feel like getting involved, contact your state senator and tell him/her to vote yes (or no). Our senator is Vince Gregory. And if anyone would like to put me on a drainage board, I’d be happy to serve for free.