Funding solution is needed for roads, officials say

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | C&G Newspapers | Published March 26, 2014

 A worker of Tel-Twelve Towing Service Inc. changes a flat tire after the vehicle hit a pothole on Lahser Road in front of the Road Commission for Oakland County office.

A worker of Tel-Twelve Towing Service Inc. changes a flat tire after the vehicle hit a pothole on Lahser Road in front of the Road Commission for Oakland County office.

Photo by Cari DeLamielleure-Scott

OAKLAND COUNTY — According to Craig Bryson, public information officer for the Road Commission for Oakland County, Michigan’s road conditions have been a “forgotten priority” since at least 1964.

Due to the freeze-thaw climate and lack of appropriated funds, Michigan has been ranked in the bottom nine states since 1964 for road funding on a per capita spending basis, he said.
“We’re paying less as residents to maintain our roads than the residents in most other states,” Bryson said.

Per capita, Michigan was ranked 50th in state and local expenditures on road works in 2010, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Roads in Michigan are paid for by the Michigan Transportation Fund, or MTF, which was established by the state constitution to pay for roads. While the two largest sources of funding are the state-collected gas tax, which totals 19 cents per gallon, and vehicle-registration fees, or license plate fees, there are several state-collected revenues that contribute to road funding, including the diesel fuel tax, the diesel carrier tax, and licenses and miscellaneous revenue. The gas tax and vehicle registration fees account for 90 percent of the MTF as of 2012, according to Bryson.

Michigan’s gas tax is one of the highest gas taxes in the nation and was last increased in 1997.

“Nineteen cents a gallon generates a lot less revenue today than it did in 1997, and the dollars are worth less, so we’re getting less and less money a year out of the gas tax,” Bryson said.

Ohio, which does not charge a state sales tax on gas, has a gas tax totaling 28 cents per gallon, and according to Bryson, that generates about $1 billion more than Michigan generates for roads. Wisconsin does not charge a sales tax on gas and charges a 30-cent-per-gallon gas tax. Indiana, which by July will no longer be charging a sales tax on gas, currently has a gas tax of 18 cents per gallon.

By law, 90 percent of MTF funds must be allocated to road funding. As it stands, 8 percent is appropriated to transit and 92 percent is put back into the roads. State-collected transportation funds are then distributed based on a road-funding formula to the municipalities listed in Michigan Public Act 51. According to the Road Commission’s “A Guide to Michigan’s Road-Funding Crisis,” after MTF funds are allocated to the bridge fund and transit, 39.1 percent of the remaining funds are distributed to the Michigan Department of Transportation, 39.1 percent goes to county road commissions, and 21.8 percent is distributed to cities and villages.

On top of the state gas tax and the federal 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax, Michigan is one of seven states where a policy was adopted to also charge a sales tax on gas sales; however, those funds are not distributed back into the roads.

“The way the gas tax is allocated, it’s done incorrectly,” said Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake. “Not a dime of sales tax on gasoline goes towards road repair. Sales tax on gasoline goes to education, the general fund and local governments.”

Kowall said that many proposals have been introduced to the state Legislature, including a proposal to raise the gas tax, or distribute the sales tax on gas to the roads and increase the sales tax by 2 percent; however, the state Legislature has not moved forward on those proposals, he said.

“There’s a lot of people here that don’t believe it’s necessary to raise the tax, but there needs to be an adjustment of how the money is sent,” Kowall said.

Of the reported $1 billion state surplus, the House and Senate approved March 12 a supplemental spending plan that includes $100 million to help state and local road agencies fill potholes and another $115 million for infrastructure construction projections. The $215 million for road maintenance will come out of the general fund.

“I appreciate the Legislature’s working together to approve this budget supplemental that provides much needed funding to help fix Michigan’s deteriorating roads. ... While this funding will be of great benefit in the short-term, Michigan still very much needs a comprehensive long-term solution to fix our state’s aging roads and bridges,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a press release.

The Road Commission for Oakland County’s share of $100 million will be about $3.4 million-$3.8 million, which Bryson said would help the commission backfill the hole created when the commission exceeded its $12 million winter maintenance budget. After that, anything left over will be used for potholes. The funds won’t be enough to complete other  road projects, he said. Bryson added that the commission does not know yet whether it will receive a portion of the $115 million allocated for infrastructure construction projects, which will be distributed on a project-by-project basis. The Road Commission has submitted 26 projects to the state Legislature for review.

An ongoing funding issue the Road Commission experiences, Bryson said, is that not one of the townships in Oakland County has a road millage. Across the state, various townships have adopted road millages and contribute to their road commissions to help maintain the roads, he said. About 19 counties in the state have countywide road millages.

“One of the appealing things about townships are the taxes are lower, but you get less service,” Bryson said. “For whatever reason, not a single township in Oakland County (has sought a road millage) in some time, probably 30-40 years.”

West Bloomfield Township Supervisor Michele Economou Ureste said that she has not heard of West Bloomfield ever adopting a road millage to contribute to the Road Commission.

“It’s not a local issue. This is a state issue. Our state Legislature must find a road funding solution,” Economou Ureste said.

Funding remains an issue with Michigan roads, but the freeze-thaw climate and weight limit drastically affect road conditions.

In Michigan, weight limits per axle for commercial vehicles vary depending on the type of truck, said Dan Weingarten, communications representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation – Superior Region. The largest truck permitted in Michigan, based on the number of axles and weight, is 11 axels and 164,000 pounds.

Every spring, MDOT places weight restrictions on state routes when the roads begin thawing. All-season routes permit the state-regulated 164,000 pounds for an 11 axle truck. Seasonal routes require drivers to reduce the weight of loads by 25 percent while on rigid pavements, like concrete, and by 35 percent on flexible pavements, like asphalt, Weingarten added. MDOT road restrictions only apply to roads with a prefix of M, U.S. and I, but restrictions are also imposed on county roads.

Kowall said that while Michigan allows more axles than surrounding states, the weight limit per axle is lower. “Depending on who you talk to, there’s a vast difference of opinion,” Kowall said, adding that he has sat in transportation policy meetings, but he has not heard of any legislation at this time regarding reducing the weight limit.

A freeze band that has the most volatile freeze-thaw cycles spans from Buffalo, N.Y., to the bottom of the Great Lakes, with Michigan sitting in the middle. Because of this, the state sees the most frequent swing from freezing to thawing temperatures, Bryson said. Though Ohio and Wisconsin experience the same climate conditions, those states are able to maintain the roads by resurfacing, where Michigan’s lack of funds limits the needed maintenance,  according to Bryson.

“It’s the wonderful world of road funding,” Bryson added.

In 10 years, Kowall said, “virtually no maintenance” was done on the roads, and the solution is three-pronged: appropriations for emergency road repair work, mid-term replacement of dilapidated roads and determining how the state will fund the roads in the future when cars run on alternative fuels and tax values drop.

“It’s a beginning,” Kowall said regarding the vote for allocating $215 million to road repairs. “We’ve got a long, long way to go.”