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Time to think outside the box on road funding

Last year, the state gas tax jumped from 19 cents to 26.3 cents a gallon, making it, at that time, one of the five highest gas taxes in the United States.

The tax represented a compromise between Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers, and it was a complicated formula, at best, since it also gave local governments a significant piece of the new revenue. Because the state has diverted portions of the general fund to repair roads in the past, the full benefit of the 2017 increase won’t be entirely realized until 2021.

Almost immediately after it started being collected, government officials realized they were woefully short in raising the money needed for road repairs around the state.

It was those road repairs that became a major focus of Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer in this year’s gubernatorial election. Her “fix the damn roads” message was heard from Marquette to Monroe and every point in between.

It was a nice sentiment, but I will be interested in just exactly how she proposes paying for them.

Toward that end, it is possible that Snyder might help her out. This week, during the Legislature’s lame duck session, the governor proposed shifting money from the state’s School Aid Fund to help boost road funding.

Notice I said possible, but not probable. Similar attempts have been made in the past, but gone nowhere. And initial reads on this attempt showed no real traction at the end of the week for the proposal.

I did read an interesting suggestion this month from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, authored by Joe Zane. In a blog shared at the center’s website, he suggested that funding roads through gas taxes no longer is “sustainable” and, instead, suggested taxing vehicles by monitoring the number of miles they drive each year. Vehicles that drove a lot would be taxed more, while vehicles kept in a garage and driven but once a week for a trip to the grocery store would be taxed less. His is a “road user charge” concept this is being experimented with in some states around the country.

As I read his opinion, my mind drifted to former state Rep. Peter Pettalia and his suggestion years ago that, rather than a gas tax, why not place a tax on other items on a vehicle, such as tires. He argued that if you drive a lot, you are going to need to purchase new tires more often than if you don’t. Basically, his was a similar premise to that of Zane, just another way of accomplishing it.

If the road user charge format was based on the honor system by self reporting each year’s mileage, rather than a GPS device that monitors your every move, I would probably be more interested in the concept. I am absolutely opposed, however, to placing a tracking device in a personal vehicle that allows any government official to have access to where I’ve been driving. I expect there are many, like me, who would see that as an invasion of privacy.

But this I do agree with: Like Zane, I believe gas taxes are no longer a viable way to fund the types of road projects we need constructed in this state. Having driven a lot through Midwest neighboring states over the past five years, there is no question Michigan’s roads are the worst in the region. I believe a system that is user-based makes perfect sense … it’s just that the devil might be in the detail as to how to make it a reality.

Whether that is a road user charge or is as simple as new taxes on things like tires, brakes or oil filters, I’m sure there is a better concept someone has that could address a more equitable way of raising funds.

Everyone wants better roads.

How we pay for those roads is the problem.

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or bspeer@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.

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