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A matter of road maintenance

In last Tuesday’s edition of The News, an article appeared concerning the effects of name-calling and cake frosting.

State Senate Majority leader Mike Shirkey had called Gov. Gretchen Whitmer “bat-s*** crazy.”

The governor responded by sending Skirkey a cake for his 65th birthday coated in black frosting, with a big bat and “Happy 65th Bat Day!” in yellow frosting. Shirkey came back with, “Having a ‘batful’ day thanks to my friend Governor Whitmer.”

Then — along with other legislative leaders — they proceeded to restore millions of dollars in school and other program funding.

But more frosting will have to be slathered. The topic that prompted Shirkey to call Whitmer “bat-s*** crazy” remains unresolved.

You may recall Gov. Whitmer proposed a 45-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase to fix our roads. The fact you were able to recall that proposal is, I suspect, the reason she made it. She knew such an increase would never fly, no matter how much frosting was applied, but she wanted to get people’s attention in a forceful — if not party-like manner.

That topic is still on the table. Now what?

For answers, I turned to a couple of road engineers I know: Ron Young, the former manager of the Alcona County Road Commission, and Tom Hilberg, a former construction engineer for the Michigan state highway department. They made percipient coffee-drinking companions and profound expounders of pertinent roadway information — but offered only one definitive answer.

Here’s what they — or the information they provided — had to say:

1. The Transportation Asset Management Council is composed of state, county, township, and road commission officials. One of its jobs is to monitor the condition of Michigan’s roads. It’s 2018 report can be found at michigan.gov/tamc. Here are some highlights:

a.) 41 % of our paved federal-aid roads are in poor repair, 51% of the paved non-federal aid roads are.

b.) For well over a decade, more roads have deteriorated than have been improved.

c.) In 2018, 10.7 % of Michigan’s bridges were in poor condition. This is the highest level in the Midwest. The council forecasts bridge deterioration percentages will continue to rise significantly.

2. Michigan’s road funding program is inefficient.

Road dollars are rationed among local governmental units in accordance with a set percentage from fixed funding sources. But these formulas do not reflect the relative needs of different areas, nor do the distribution formulas reflect actual road utilization.

Mandated targeted funding of certain projects is often a problem. A certain percentage of road funding must be spent on non-motorized transportation. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and others get special allocations that diminish funds available for needed road maintenance elsewhere, and some groups are given favorable treatment in road use regulations.

3. We provide insufficient funding support. Michigan is one of the few states to impose a sales tax on gasoline. As the price of gas rises, so does this tax, which is in addition to a state gas tax and a federal gas tax. When all three are considered, it puts Michigan in the top tier of states in the amount charged per gallon.

But — and this is a big but — though imposed on gasoline, all this tax revenue doesn’t go to roads. Based on the percentage of gas taxes allocated to roads, Michigan is 40th in the nation. We’re 33rd in road investment per lane mile, and dead last on a per-capita road investment basis (michigan.gov/realitycheck).

4. The future is challenging. Emerging electric-powered vehicles pay no gas tax, political parties are unable to agree upon much of anything, and vested interests will make change difficult.

5. Which brings me to Ron and Tom’s definitive answer: Hold more ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Road maintenance is not sexy in any form, but new roads can be, and it’s there the ribbon-cutting ceremonies occur. Ron and Tom recommend we hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies for major maintenance projects. They feel politicians would be more likely to support them if they knew they’d get their picture taken.

I agree.

More ribbon-cutting picture-taking ceremonies would be helpful.

But at those parties, I suspect there will still be name-calling — with fewer cakes and less frosting.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs biweekly on Tuesdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.