61 percent of proposed tax hike in Michigan would go to city and county roads

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — If voters agree to raise taxes for Michigan’s deteriorating road and bridge system, 61 cents of every dollar would go to local agencies that say the money could gradually restore roads to respectability within a decade.

The large funding increase at the local level, phased in over three years, would include $491 million more to 83 counties and an additional $274 million to more than 500 cities and villages, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

Local officials say the money would help tackle long-deferred road work, promote longer-lasting fixes instead of short-term patches, replace aging plows and salt trucks, and beef up dwindling road commission employee levels.

In the Grand Rapids area, more than one-third of Kent County’s primary roads are in poor condition, double from a decade ago. Almost 90 percent of roads were in good or fair condition then; now just two-thirds are.

“It’s a pretty dramatic drop. We used to spend probably double what we do now on road improvements,” said Steve Warren, managing director of the Kent County Road Commission.

The state’s primary account for roads and bridges — the $1.9 billion Michigan Transportation Fund — is funded with state fuel taxes and vehicle registration taxes. Proposal 1, the one-percentage point sales tax hike up for a statewide vote on May 5, would trigger higher gasoline, diesel and vehicle taxes to boost revenue in the fund by more than $1.2 billion on an ongoing basis while not changing how the money is distributed.

After some deductions, about 39 cents of each new dollar would go to the state Department of Transportation; about 39 cents would go to county road commissions; and nearly 22 cents would go to cities and villages.

Kent County, which received about $30.6 million from the fund last fiscal year, would see anywhere from $20.7 million to $24.4 million more by the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to differing estimates from MDOT and The Associated Press’ analysis of House Fiscal Agency projections.

The county would likely spend three-quarters of the increase on road improvements and one-quarter on maintenance — fixing guardrails, improving drainage and the like, Warren said.

“People would see an immediate and steady increase in the (road) conditions,” he said. “We would be able to get back up to where we used to be in 2004, but it’s going to take probably close to 10 years to get back there.”

Not all of the $1.2 billion-plus influx would go to roads and bridges immediately. Much of the new tax revenue — $865 million in the first year and $468 million in the second year — would instead be used to pay down debt accumulated for highway construction projects in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Critics say that is another flaw with a ballot measure that should have been written to focus solely on fixing deteriorating roads instead of also directing additional funding to schools and local governments. Supporters counter that the phased-in approach would provide time to ramp up construction while reducing interest payments that are eating into the transportation budget.

Marquette County in the Upper Peninsula would receive $9.6 million to $10 million in year three, a minimum of nearly $4 million more than now. Jim Iwanicki, engineer manager for the county road commission, said the extra money likely would be used for “Band-Aid” fixes initially to buy time until bigger reconstruction projects can be planned.

The county paved 40 miles of road a year in the early 1970s; “we’re lucky to pave 10 right now,” he said.

Iwanicki said if Proposal 1 passes there also would be talk about spending more on snow removal. He called the current snow service “right on the edge” after the road commission was forced to cut its full-time workforce from more than 100 to just under 50 over 15 years.

“A lot of people aren’t happy with the level of service they get from us and it’s an issue of funding. It’s not going to be perfect (with Proposal 1) but it will at least become reasonable and right now it’s not reasonable,” he said.

In the Ann Arbor area, the Washtenaw County Road Commission has sealed 10 miles of road surface in some years when it should be doing 50 to 100 miles, said the commission’s managing director, Roy Townsend.

“You’re deferring that maintenance and it starts catching up with you,” he said.

The county’s 50 to 60 snow trucks typically last around 10 years. But instead of replacing five or six new trucks a year, the county can only afford to buy one or two annually, Townsend said.

Washtenaw’s funding from the Michigan Transportation Fund would rise from $17.5 million to $29.3 million to $31.4 million in 2017-18 if the constitutional amendment is OK’d.

“By 2018, 2019, 2020, as we continue to invest $8 to $12 million more into the road infrastructure, you are finally going to be able to turn that corner,” Townsend said. “But it’s going to a take a while to get there.”

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