Opinion | Let’s move people, not just cars, with $2.5 billion in Michigan road funding

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.

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Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:03am

Arguing that Michigan roads and cities have been designed or incentivized to contribute to sprawl is fair and probably correct. Arguing that road taxes raised by drivers on their gas purchases then be directed to his preferred non auto driving uses is just the typical lefty millennial whine that that they get what they want and stick the bill on someone else. How about taxing bike purchases or any wheeled rec equipment? tolls on bike trails? Raising mass transit tickets to even approximate their costs? Never!

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 4:53pm

Well said Matt.

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 4:28pm

I wonder if the those mass transit successes in Detroit, the 'People Mover' and the new 'Q-Line', are the examples of where Mr. Hammond wants to spend the moneys from the new taxes. The surely don't put an burden on the roads in the way of wearing out the asphalt. And the 'Q-Line' has reduce the cars on Woodward, not by reducing people wanting to use Woodward but by slowing traffic so much they simply avoid it. We should trust more money to those who spent it on those to means of displacing the need for cars in Detroit?
I wonder if a ticket tax on the ridership for both of those mass transits could even pay for the administrative cost to collect the taxes.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:43am

Yes, we need more Q-Lines, which are running at 50% of projections, and come to a complete stop when someone illegally parks on the tracks.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:52am

All laudable goals. However, the Governor does not care about seniors like me who live on fixed income and need a car for doctors and general mobility. There are other ways the State can divert money from other programs to fund this program without taxing the poor and elderly out of freedom and mobility.
The State government through the years raided the funds raised by gas and airport taxes to fund pet projects. Yet now comes the consequence of wrong headed politicans but instead of being creative they just want to tax tax tax.

Shame on Republicans and Democrats and shame on madam governor who created this crisis in the first place.

Lauren Sargent
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:55am

Well reasoned and argued. I never resonated with “fix the damn roads” as I have long wondered “where’s the damn train?”

Jim C
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:57am

And here it comes. Money might be coming into the system so groups are lining up to syphon off a portion for their projects. I'm tired of seeing miles of unused bike paths. Syphon the money for the whole state and put it to projects in SE Michigan. The rest of the state is just wilderness anyway right?

Kenneth Borg
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 9:12am

Yes some of the road expansion is wastefull such as widening I-75 from Eight Mile to Pontiac. For all that money spent the State could purchase one of two railroad tracks from the Canadian National and operate a commuter service, not train, but service, Pontiac to Detroit. We also need to think of "Total" transportation.
The Q-Line in Detroit goes no where. Should be expanded to Ten Mile road. Than people in the area above New Center could access the Meijer on Eight Mile. A new streetcar line should be built from the MC Depot/Ford project down Michigan and out Gratiot to a loop at Van Dyke. This would allow people at Ford Project access to Downtown and residents access to Eastern Market.
Need to get the commuter trains running before Ford opens their Depot project. Train should run from Jackson to MC Depot This would allow travel from towns West of Ann Arbor to Ann Arbor and transit to Detroit. Get off train, take street car Downtown, use People Mover to get around Central Business District. Tie all transportation together.
Still need to add a lane to I-94 from Michigan to Eight Mile.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 11:00am

Other methods of transportation may help in some areas, but roads are not just for people who live here to get back and forth to work, but are vital to attract tourists to Michigan. Many of the small towns and cities in northern Michigan and the upper peninsula's survival depend on the tourist industry.

Jim West
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 11:41am

Having moved from Washington within the last 6 mos., I am a retire Senior Financial Analyst for Boeing .
This may not be the solution that will work for the majority of Michigan that live outside of a large City. Washington State has embarked upon mass transit, some of it good for Seattle, but has little effect in moving people in the outlying counties. The only thing it has done is to add taxes to three effected counties to the amount of 62 Billion dollars. The real problems are that it will only effect maybe 2% of the daily traffic that move into Seattle, it is not a commercial project and the estimate is not a fixed value . Remember it only moves between fixed destination, It will only interest help the passengers and goods between those fixed points.
The 2.5 Billion will only be the beginning in the spending for a mass transit solution and you will still need the roads. If there is no commercial interest in providing Mass transit stay away from it.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 12:39pm

Again with the misdirection...40 percent of Gov. Whitmer's gas tax DOES NOT go towards roads!

It is not being promoted so that the rubes will eagerly sign off on it.

Pat C.
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 1:04pm

Legislators: Google the YouTube video "Mechanical Concrete" which looks like an extremely cost effective--and, more importantly--lasting way to fix our damn roads with an innovative method that incorporates using old tires! Watch the video, and see for yourselves. It's time to make LASTING repairs to our roads, rather than the short-lived junk that's been used for decades. The big payoff comes from the removal of old, used tires from junkyard storage where they eventually pollute the groundwater. How about trying something new that promises lasting results!!

Dave Andrews
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 3:17pm

We are at a logical break point. Our roads need to be replaced, out trucks and cars are suffering innovation retardation. We need to dive headlong into self driving vehicles so we can turn the driver and passenger around. We need to put trucks on steel. We need intercity public transportation. We need stuff we don't even know we need to do.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 7:59pm

Hear hear! The highway network is expensive and harmful to the quality of life of Michigan residents. We owe it to our children to create walkable communities and curtail our overbuilt network of roads and suburbs.

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 9:10am

use all the gas and sales tax for roads, do away with all the grant money thats tax dollar giving away for free, do not use gas tax money to subsidize public transit tired of getting taxed than not using money as promise. And if you remember the governor in her debate said it was a lie she would raise gas taxes guess she lied to get elected. doesn't matter how much taxes we pay to fix the road are not going to happen don't believe governor they will use it some where else, we are here from government and here to help what a joke

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 1:58pm

I couldn't agree more. Improve the existing infrastructure of traditional transportation to support the people and industries that rely on it, while at the same time taking a step back to examine the long term vision so we don't limit our potential. Just as we shouldn't prevent people who need vehicles from using them, nor should we create a system that forces people (millennials or otherwise) to rely them.

Roger C Bartlett Jr
Fri, 05/03/2019 - 4:22pm

For years we've heard that the roads were going to be taken care of, and nothing happened. Where did all the money go? Why are we now having to come up with 2.5 Billion when Whitmer only needs 1.9 Billion. What is going to be done with the remaining $600 Million? No new tax money for roads..dig deep and reclaim prior tax monies that you squandered or pocketed and make things right. MAGA!

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 9:18pm

It would be great to understand where state tax money actually goes. It seems that most of the bad roads are city roads; does the state taxes help much on those. Same question for county roads. Interstates (1-75) gets Fed money doesn't it? If only M roads are truly supported by state taxes this entire "fix the damn roads" is just political gobly goop. Decreasing lanes is great, but cities seem more willing to spend money on roundabouts then re striping four lane roads to allow bikes, motor scooter (electric and gas) etc.

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 1:32pm

The issue I have with the perpetual pushing of credits and low fees for hybrids and battery electric vehicles: It is EXTREMELY regressive. Who buys those vehicles? Not poor people. It is upper middle class or upper class people who like to appear environmentally friendly while wasting resources in so many other ways. Why do rich people need an electric tax or fee break? I earn a very good income and think this whole idea is bad.

Don Sepanski
Wed, 05/15/2019 - 7:17pm

No to the entire premise of this article!
Road tax money, all of it, needs to be spent on roads. Only!
And for the use of vehicle owners that are paying those taxes. Only!.
You want trains and buses, then raise the money from the fares of the train and bus users. Only!
And no "road diets", bike paths, sidewalks, or walking paths from road money. Get the money from those users via income, or sales taxes. Only!

Sat, 05/25/2019 - 1:39pm

yes, yes and yes!