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Michigan lawmakers raise concern about toll road plan

toll road
A tolling system in Michigan could drum up more cash for Michigan roads, but it would take years and a lot of regulatory finagling.
  • Experts say 6 cents per mile tolls could raise $1 billion and slow road deterioration
  • Implementing a toll road system in Michigan would take years and could be a heavy lift
  • Lawmakers say they’re open to considering it

In 2020, Michigan lawmakers sought information on whether toll roads were a feasible option to help drum up more funding for the state’s crumbling roads. 

Now, they have a roadmap on how to do it, but whether they pursue it is another matter. 

On Tuesday, analysts behind a new study commissioned by the Legislature took questions from the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a proposed tolling program that could ultimately generate more than $1 billion a year by converting up to 1,200 miles of state highways into toll roads. Some lawmakers from both parties expressed interest in the plan, but raised possible concerns. 


If lawmakers move forward with assessing tolls on existing roads, Michigan would be in uncharted territory nationally, the analysts told lawmakers Tuesday. 

States have historically been prohibited from implementing tolls on highways that were built using federal money, although a series of new federal laws and pilot programs have relaxed the rules. Several states have studied the possibility of leveraging federal programs to put tolls on existing roads, but none thus far have used them to implement a statewide tolling system. 

Any tolling program would take years to get off the ground in Michigan. The study explored the possibility of charging 6 cents per highway mile for cars and more for trucks. It offered a timeline to launch the tolling program by 2028, beginning with parts of I-94 and then continuing over five years on all or parts of I-69, I-75, I-196, I-275, I-696, and M-14.

To meet federal standards and sweeten the deal for drivers, the state would need to make a significant up-front investment to improve existing road quality, Eric Morris of HNTB, the Missouri-based engineering firm that led the Michigan research, told lawmakers. The study suggested the possibility of bonding the money and recouping costs from the eventual tolls.

“If we go out and implement tolls on the same crummy roads that we’re driving on now, I don’t know anybody that would be happy or excited to do that,” Morris told the committee.  

“So when we looked at implementation, we’re trying to look at where we can provide value to the motoring public before turning on the tolls.” 

The revenue could free up much-needed cash for other Michigan roads, and replace reductions in gas tax revenue as more drivers convert to electric vehicles. Without greater investments,  industry experts have projected road conditions statewide will continue to worsen over time despite occasional cash infusions and an ongoing $3.5 billion bonding program for state projects.

Michigan drivers currently pay tolls at the Mackinac Bridge and bridge crossings into Ontario, but no roadways currently have tolls.

Interstates 696 and the northern section of 275 could be converted to toll roads through the federal Value Pricing Pilot Program, which authorizes tolling to mitigate congestion, the engineering firm found. 

Several other interstates — including parts or all of 69, 75, 94 and 196  — could be converted under an existing federal program allowing states to add tolls when replacing or reconstructing bridges along the routes. 

Convincing Michigan residents to pay tolls on roads they currently drive for free could be a heavy lift.

House Transportation Committee Chair Nate Shannon, D-Sterling Heights, recently told Bridge Michigan the rates outlined in the tolling study would add $12-14 per day to the cost of driving from his home to the state Capitol in Lansing, not counting gas or maintenance costs. 

“That adds up,” he said, noting that unlike Ohio and other tolling states where there’s significant interstate traffic, most tolls in Michigan would be paid by Michigan residents. 

“It's interesting, but I just don't know if it's going to go anywhere,” he said. “It sounds like a great idea, but there are a lot of factors that have to be considered on who is actually going to be paying…for these tolls.”

Sen. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe, questioned Tuesday how policymakers would justify putting tolls on drivers when the state is not a traditional “pass through” state like other Midwest states with tolls, including Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio. 

Morris said that despite a steady flow of freight traffic from Canada, Michigan’s interstate traffic is lower than its Midwest neighbors. He said a better tolling comparison to Michigan is the state of Florida, a fellow peninsula state where “they’ve had quite a bit of success” with tolls and turnpikes.

Other lawmakers asked Morris and others who worked on the project about whether traffic diversion could impact neighborhoods near the proposed toll routes and the rationale behind why certain routes weren’t considered. 

The concept plan largely avoids proposed tolls on heavily trafficked highways in urban Detroit and Grand Rapids, which consultants said could negatively impact low-income communities — a consideration Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, said she appreciated. 

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will consider the proposal, although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Senate Infrastructure and Transportation Committee Chair Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, and other legislative leaders have said they’re open to exploring the concept further

If lawmakers and Whitmer ultimately decide to pursue tolling Michigan roads, they’d have to put forward legislation, get it signed into law and pursue the process of meeting federal regulations.

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