Sean Hammond is deputy policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council
Everyone agrees that the transportation infrastructure Michiganders depend on to get from point A to point B is crumbling, underfunded and inefficient. For decades we have underinvested in existing roads and highways while at the same time continuously expanding our road network beyond our means to adequately maintain it. Significantly more funding is needed to improve roads and transportation in Michigan, which is why in her budget presentation Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took a bold stance and called for a 45 cent gas tax increase to raise $2.5 billion annually.
We agree with Gov. Whitmer that at least $2.5 billion per year is needed to get our transportation infrastructure in good shape and a phased-in gas tax increase, as a user fee, is a sound method of raising that funding.
At the same time, we cannot fully repair our broken transportation system and actually “fix the damn roads” by just filling in potholes and investing in more asphalt. We must also address the decades of bad policy decisions that led to the current road conditions. Michigan legislators should work with Gov. Whitmer to enact new funds, and dedicate them to fixing our broken roads as well as improving our entire transportation system.
The state of our roads and many of the associated costs can be traced back to an old philosophy that drove investment decisions in our transportation infrastructure: how can we move more cars, more quickly.
This 20th-century way of thinking only creates more congestion and traffic.
As downtown roads expand and get faster, pedestrian and non-motorized options become more difficult. Similarly, as neighborhoods are split for more expressways, transit routes become more circuitous and communities less vibrant. This expansion continues today, and forces the Michigan Department of Transportation and local agencies to try and maintain ever more roads with less money. It also makes it necessary to own a car to live in Michigan, when data show young people are less inclined to want them at all, and saddles Michiganders with expensive repair and insurance costs.
As Whitmer rightly pointed out, we can rein in some exorbitant repair costs with smoother roads, and we should. But the full cost of this “car tax” can only be eliminated if we change the way we invest in our road and transportation network.
We should take this moment of legislative debate on increased funding as an opportunity to not only fix potholes and bridges, but also to move Michigan’s transportation system into the 21st century. Only when we break out of this cycle of dumping money into road repairs and endless expansion can we begin to build a transportation system that supports not only cars and trucks, but also vibrant, walkable communities, where Michiganders have mobility options – including choosing to skip owning a car altogether.
As Millennials and Generation Z continue to join the workforce and look for places to live, they want communities with clean air and amenities that they can easily get to without driving. They also want walkable communities and downtowns that aren’t dominated by wide arteries of roads and traffic. If Michigan wants to become a leader in attracting talent, we will have to do more to provide a truly interconnected system of transportation options.
To do that, Michigan should put road and transportation dollars from the gas tax into right-sizing and aligning our road networks to current needs. This means converting some highway lanes into high-occupancy vehicle/efficiency lanes, creating safe multimodal lanes for bikes and scooters, fixing sidewalks for kids and pedestrians, and providing reliable and well-connected public transit systems.
It means halting further road expansion plans and putting together a statewide road diet plan for Michigan to decrease lane-miles and road widths to create a more manageable and pedestrian-friendly road network overall. And it also means that our transportation funding mechanism shouldn’t discourage people from reducing harmful air pollution by buying lower emission electric vehicles, as excessive EV registration fees do.
Increased funding is an opportunity to fix our whole transportation system from the ground up. From this investment, we can turn Michigan from a state notorious for its horrible roads into a state known for moving in the right direction - towards better roads and safer, more reliable options no matter how you choose to get around.
Let’s move people, not just cars.