MICHIGAN — If nothing else, Gov. Rick Snyder’s focus on improving funding for Michigan’s aging roads and bridges positions the issue toward the top of the agenda in Lansing.
While various ideas circulate on how to generate the $1.2 billion annually the governor says is needed to improve the state’s deteriorating roads, parties with a stake in the issue say they welcome the attention that it’s finally getting.
“We need a good, serious discussion on it because too much of our economy and quality of life is dependent on the quality of transportation,” said John Weiss, executive director of the Grand Valley Metro Council in Grand Rapids that consists of municipalities in Kent and Ottawa counties.
Gov. Snyder made road funding a top priority in his recent State of the State address. The issue has also received increased focus from business advocates across the state.
Business Leaders for Michigan, a coalition of top CEOs and university presidents, views improved roads funding as a top priority.
“There are two things that you can invest in as a government that will have the best impact on growth, and that’s people and infrastructure. With infrastructure, you need to kind of keep yourself connected in the whole economy. That’s why we’re fully supportive of the governor’s call for transportation funding,” Business Leaders for Michigan CEO Doug Rothwell told MiBiz. “We are agnostic in terms of what that funding system or structure looks like. As long as it solves the problem for a number of years and we’re not back here in three or four years having the same conversation, we’d probably be supportive of almost any reasonable plan that the legislature may come up with.”
Sixty-five percent of Michigan’s roads and bridges are now in “good” or “fair” condition, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation. Under the present funding level, that will fall to 35 percent by the end of the decade and cost the state millions more to address in the years ahead.
“That is not going to be contributing to a positive business environment,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
A good road system is particularly important to economic development and the state’s $17 billion tourism industry, Johnston said.
In the 2013 Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce government affairs survey, the condition of the state’s roads and bridges ranked eighth among the issues that responding members viewed as important to their business. Among transportation and infrastructure issues alone, adequate funding that keeps infrastructure in “good” or “fair” condition rated at the top.
While business groups like the Grand Rapids Chamber typically loathe any tax increases, Johnston takes the view of Gov. Snyder: The roads need attention and the cost is only going to increase if left unaddressed.
“It absolutely is an instance to save money over the long term,” Johnston said.
While there’s plenty of consensus that Michigan needs to fix its road system, there’s not nearly as much agreement over how to do it. There’s also an anti-tax sentiment within his own party that the Republican governor will have to overcome. Then there are the Democrats, who are not in any mood to assist Gov. Snyder, especially after the passage of right-to-work legislation just prior to the end of 2012.
In his State of the State address last month, Gov. Snyder proposed generating $12 billion over 10 years by shifting the gas tax from the retail to the wholesale level, increasing the vehicle registration fee for cars and light trucks by an average of about $120 per vehicle, and allowing an optional local or regional registration fee.
Prior to the governor’s State of the State address, the Michigan office of the National Federation of Independent Businesses touted results of a 2012 survey that indicate its members largely oppose increased taxes to pay for road improvements.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents to the NFIB survey said they would not support a higher gas tax at the retail level, 60 percent would not back transitioning the tax to the wholesale level, and 75 percent would not support increasing driver’s license and vehicle registration fees.
Forty-nine percent indicated support for allowing local governments to raise money for roads through a public vote and 44 percent oppose it. Half of respondents opposed eliminating the gas tax and raising the state sales tax by a cent, while 35 percent supported the measure, according to results of the NFIB survey.
“While we recognize the need for good roads and adequate funding, this is a difficult time for tax and fee increases on Michigan small business job providers. NFIB small business owners have made it clear that they are not supportive of a motor fuels tax increase or a hike in vehicle registration fees,” states the NFIB’s recently released 2013 legislative agenda.