Public to politicians: Fix our roads!

Michigan residents want better roads, and a majority are willing to pay for it.

That’s one of the major findings in the Center for Michigan’s effort to collect and analyze public opinion on issues residents want politicians to address in 2014.

More than 5,500 Michigan residents voiced their opinions in about 160 community conversations held across the state, and in scientific polls and online conversations conducted by the Center for Michigan. Those residents are fairly optimistic about the state’s future, but offered clear signals about work that needs to be done by politicians – both those in office now and those hoping to win election in November.

The report, “Michigan Speaks: The citizens’ agenda for the 2014 elections,” released today, offers the best indication yet what issues matter most to Michigan voters in 2014, which don’t, and whether residents are willing to pay more to address those concerns.

Road to repair

As a shock to probably no one who has driven in Michigan recently, roads are a major concern of state residents. Seven out of 10 participants in the Center for Michigan’s Community Conversations said the state’s roads, bridges and infrastructure are an urgent priority, compared with only 8 percent who said roads aren’t a priority or that we shouldn’t invest in repairs. Among poll respondents, 56 percent list roads as an urgent priority. The polls have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

Michigan residents generally believe that infrastructure investments can lead to economic growth, but want to see these improvements done properly — short-term fixes are not welcome. As one participant said, “Employers who may want to invest in Michigan arrive at Metro Airport, drive down I-94 and break down from the potholes. I’d rather pay the government to fix roads than to have to fix my car alignment each year.”

As Bridge recently reported, Michigan spends less per capita on its roads than any state in the nation. Michigan spends $174 per person annually on transportation. Our neighbors in Illinois and Ohio each spend $235. Minnesota spends $315.

“It’s easy to see why people say we have the worst roads in the country,” Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle told Bridge in April. “We put the least amount of emphasis on roads.”

One of three Michigan highways and major county and local roads are rated as being in poor condition, according to a Michigan Department of Transportation report (which is not yet available online). One of every eight bridges is considered structurally deficient.

“I think there are about 150 people in the state who don’t believe we have bad roads,” Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley told Bridge in April.

“The problem is, many of them are in the Legislature.”

People complain, legislators listen

That may be changing.

Last November, before winter’s extreme weather hit, Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan, heard rumblings that additional road money might be addressed in the Legislature in 2015. By March, she was hearing the issue might be addressed in this December’s lame duck session. Now, it appears the Legislature may find additional road funding in the coming weeks.

“Every time I walk into a room with more than five or six people, someone in that room has had one or more flats or a bent rim,” Donahue said. “It’s just surfaced at an unprecedented level. That’s been a game-changer for the Legislature.”

The strong sentiment among Michigan residents suggests politicians shouldn’t be worried about a voter backlash if they support increased taxes or fees for road repairs. Fifty-two percent of community conversation participants said they would be willing to pay more taxes for improved roads, compared with 26 percent who said no. Among poll-takers, 58 percent said they’d kick in more money to fix the roads.

“Whenever I’m talking to a group, whether you’re talking to the business community, local government, taxpayers, there’s a consensus that we need to do something,” said Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee. “That’s the challenge: What’s that ‘something’?”

The price tag for truly improving Michigan’s roads ranges from a high of an additional $2.2 billion more per year by former Rep. Rick Olson to a low of about $500 million proposed recently by House Speaker Jase Bolger and Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City.

In all likelihood, the question now isn’t whether more money is spent on roads, but how much. “There’s a high level of support for the Speaker’s plan,” VerHeulen said, referring to Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger’s proposal to invest $500 million. “It’s not the $1.7 billion (advocated by Gov. Rick Snyder) but it’s a positive first step. And we assume these reallocations will be permanent.”

That’s a reversal from the past decade, in which road funding has taken a back seat to tax cuts. “Every year a billion (in taxes) that we pay at the pump (in state-mandated gas tax) doesn’t go into roads, but into general fund,” Donahue said. “You repeat that year after year, things start to unravel.

“This issue has ramifications beyond the individual stories,” Donahue said. “It affects Michigan economic development, emergency response times, tourism. We’re at the limit of what we can do with the funds available. We need to come up with a different solution.”

Interest in minimum wage hike

Other ideas to improve Michigan’s economy received mixed support.

Among issues getting stronger backing: Raising Michigan’s minimum wage, now $7.40 an hour, was viewed as an urgent priority by 52 percent of community conversation participants and a medium priority by another 19 percent. Only 29 percent said raising the minimum wage was not a priority or that the state shouldn’t do it. In polls, however, those who said raising the minimum-wage was an urgent priority was strong but less than a majority, at 43 percent.

On two other high-visibility issues, support was more muted. Despite the amount of rhetoric expended in Lansing, there was not much passion for cutting taxes and shrinking government (an urgent priority for just 31 percent in community conversations, 36 percent in polls), or for streamlining business regulations (31 percent in community conversations, 33 percent in polls).

For the moment, the public and politicians are on the same, teeth-rattling road.

“I think we need to move forward on this (road funding) as quickly as possible,” VerHeulen said. “Let’s make absolutely sure that we’re as good of stewards as we can be.”

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Phil Marcil
Tue, 05/06/2014 - 2:30pm
Recently I've heard that the federal government may be willing to allow the states to begin making toll roads out of federally funded built highways. This would certainly take some of the burden off of the residents of each state and place it directly on the users of those roadways. The local roads are a different matter and must be dealt with by the existing gas tax or an alternative taxation method.
Charles Richards
Tue, 05/06/2014 - 3:11pm
I am disappointed in the Center for Michigan. There is a severe lack of significant information in this report. It says, "Fifty-two percent of community conversation participants said they would be willing to pay more taxes for improved roads, compared with 26 percent who said no. Among poll-takers, 58 percent said they’d kick in more money to fix the roads." Participants were not asked how much they were willing to spend for how much improvement in infrastructure. It is a trivial thing to say you are willing to pay more taxes for roads if you assume that a small expenditure will substantially improve our roads. Representative VerHeulen acknowledged that "there’s a consensus that we need to do something,” but then asked the crucial question. “That’s the challenge: What’s that ‘something’?” That is the question the Center for Michigan should have asked instead of asking if participants were in favor of motherhood and apple pie. Bridge editor David Zeman noted that when results of the meetings and poll were presented to public policy experts, those experts observed that the people of Michigan want something for nothing. Precisely.
Tue, 05/06/2014 - 5:12pm
Let the VOTERS pick an INDEPENDENT auditor to determine where our ALREADY road tax $$ goes. Then and ONLY then should there be a discussion on raising more$$. Lets try a REWARDS program for people that turn in fraud. IE. Road Builders that pad time cards, Inspectors being paid off, Cement Company's that 'SHORT' the bag mix. Look @ the original I-275. Had to be replaced in 5 years because of ALL the above. WE TAXPAYERS PAY ENOUGH$$. JUST SPEND IT PROPERLY!!
John Yaroch
Tue, 05/06/2014 - 8:03pm
Some of us are already paying more for roads via local taxes. First, several townships in charlevoix county passed added road millage assessments..then the county passed an additional county-wide road millage which means many of us are paying two additional tax levies for local roads in each of those townships. At the State level we need to get more bang for the road construction buck by addressing mandated state wage minimums which greatly exceed fair market labor costs. If it's true fuel taxes are being diverted to the General Fund, that's totally absurd and needs corrective legislative action now.
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 12:30pm
“We put the least amount of emphasis on roads.” LMFAO, you cannot be serious. They call it Motown for a reason.
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 12:32pm
Question for MDOT director, whey are you widening I-94 then for only a few billion dollars when we can't fix the roads we have?
Sat, 11/15/2014 - 9:48pm
i have done road work all my life ,the state taxes are pd, and the fed govt kicks in and matches the funding needed to do the road work ,it was done by a rep prez eisenhower back in the 50s .these guys had4 yrs to fix these roads ,they just want to tax more, for their freinds, just like the state said they needed 12 to 15 but trail groomers, they cost 175,00.00 each only 9 of them in michigan do the math 1.5 million, wheres the other money at? just like deer hunting now, you have to buy a so called base license in order to get a deer license, also an all species lic too where is this money going? this snyder is just like romney gut this state for all they can steal. the people should be in the streets with this crook robbing this state, i dont get it, what is wrong with people?watch the football games and let this go on is insane! you will pay for it now. got ur attention yet? and now raise the gas tax 41cents more unreal. good luck folks why you didnt vote you got the shaft now. live with it