ALPENA - A crowd gathered at the Alpena County Library Saturday to hear about Michigan's roads and transportation funding proposals at a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Peter Pettalia, R-Presque Isle.
At the meeting, the first of three held in Northeast Michigan that day, Pettalia was joined by a panel of county road commission directors, local government and road association members, industry experts and Michigan Department of Transportation representatives. They discussed road funding, and fielded questions from the audience about options for putting more money into fixing them.
Among numerous handouts offered to the audience, one had five options for increasing road funding. The first, proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder, calls for raising gasoline taxes and increasing vehicle registration fees by an average of 60 percent. Another calls for increasing the sales tax by 2 percent, devoting the extra revenue to transportation. Others call for various tweaks to sales or fuel taxes, even possibly extending the sales tax to services.
News Photo by Jordan Travis
Bill White, right, listens as Rep. Peter Pettalia, R-Presque Isle, after a town hall meeting Saturday at the Alpena County Library to discuss road funding. Gerald Fournier, far left, listens as meeting panel members Larry Orcutt, center, and Jesse Campbell stand behind them.
Some members of the audience offered their own solutions, with one saying fuel taxes and other user fees don't work. Another suggested increasing truck registration fees, while others said they believed the state would have more money for road repairs if the Davis-Bacon Act was repealed. Another worried that raising fuel taxes and registration fees would have unintended consequences. As the price of Diesel has risen, so too has the price of groceries, he said.
"My office has taken thousands of calls and emails," Pettalia said. "The least popular idea is raising registration fees."
Whatever the solution, everyone at the meeting agreed something needs to be done. Toward the end, Pettalia did an informal tally, asking the audience if they think the state needs to do something about the roads. Nearly everyone raised their hand.
At the beginning of the meeting, panel members talked about the state of Michigan's roads, and Kelly Bartlett, MDOT director of government affairs, offered a grim assessment of what will happen if nothing changes.
State trunkline road conditions peaked in 2008, when 92 percent of them were in good condition, Bartlett said. Road funding peaked two years earlier, when MDOT was putting $658 million into roads. As the funding has slipped, so have road conditions. Except for 2010, when the state had one-time American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, Michigan's road funding has gone down every year since 2006. It was down to $471 million in 2012, when only 82 percent of state trunkline roads were in good condition.
If Michigan continues matching federal funding for roads and spending no more, the state's roads will continue to deteriorate, Bartlett said. By 2025, it's projected that less than 40 percent of state trunkline roads will be in good condition, and it'll cost $26 billion to fix them. However, if Michigan were to spend an additional $917 million each year, it could keep up with road repairs, although road conditions would continue to dip within the first several years.
"Even if we get new revenue, the pavement quality is going to get a little bit worse," he said. "We're on a downward slope, and we've got to catch up."
Alpena County Road Commission Executive Director Larry Orcutt was joined by Alcona County Road Commission Manager Jesse Campbell on the meeting panel. Both have the same job, but work in two completely different counties, Campbell said.
While 10 out of 11 Alcona County's townships have road funding millages, only one township in Alpena County has one, Campbell said. Even still, Alcona County Road Commission doesn't have the funding for road repairs as before. Alcona County has lost $250 million in road funding since 2004, and the county can't match township funds like it used to.
"We're losing a battle with our own roads," he said.
Compounding the shrinking funding is the fact that costs are rising, Orcutt said. His department paid $98,000 for a fully outfitted dump truck ten years ago, and will pay around $200,000 for a dump truck this year. The price of materials have risen significantly as well.
"Costs are going up, we can't maintain a system like we have to," he said.
The state collects 19 cents per gallon in fuel taxes, Bartlett said, and while that has been an important source of road funding for about 80 years, it's starting to decline as a revenue source. This is due to the fact that people are driving vehicles with better fuel economies. As an example, he said Ford expects 40 percent of the F-150 pickup trucks it sells this year to be equipped with six-cylinder engines. Four years ago, the same model only came equipped with eight-cylinder engines.
"The reality is, it's not the (Chevrolet) Volt or hybrids, those are a very small percentage," he said. "People are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles."
After the meeting, Pettalia said he appreciated hearing input from the public, and noted the audience seemed very passionate about the topic.
"Most people agree that something needs to be done," he said. "It's not surprising that when I asked if people think the money we're collecting now is being spent wisely, not a lot of hands went up."
Audience member Donna Morton, of Alpena, said she found the town hall meeting "really exciting," and was glad the audience got to have their say. She's never been to a town hall meeting before, but she'll be going to more.
But how does she think the roads should be funded?
"I don't know how to answer that," she said. "I know it's a big responsibility, and a big cost."