Don’t pave the road to tolling with political dust

The question of tolls rides again. In Michigan, it arrives late — delayed by dint of the pandemic — and repackaged as a popular (35 states agree, including us already), common-sense way to fix our roads and solve expensive infrastructure troubles.

But while tolls certainly generate money, and while the states of our roads and bridges are certainly awful, if we travel this road we can’t let Lansing take us for a ride.

Tolling must be considered in its entirety, with political repackaging crushed, to successfully answer questions brought about by the recent study that suggests that turning I-94, then all or part of I-69, I-75, I-196, I-275, I-696, and M-14 into tollways starting in 2028 would be “feasible.”

First, how did we get here?

It’s a long and winding road, but the shortcut is political dysfunction — not stingy Michiganders. The last three decades feature Michigan dead last in capital outlay for our roads, according to the U.S. Census. This is in spending, not raising.

Michiganders, on the other hand, indeed pay at, or higher than, the national average when it comes to road operations and maintenance. Our gas tax is also average, and just rose again by 1.4% at the start of the new year.

So, it smarted a bit when Eric Morris, of the Missouri-based engineering firm that did the study, told Bridge Michigan: “If you charge people a toll to drive on the roads they are driving on for free right now, it would raise a significant amount of revenue.”

We don’t drive for free. Roads are built and maintained with tax dollars – which is why, until recently, the federal government didn’t allow states to charge tolls on federal highways. Consider that a gallon of gas in Michigan includes 18.4 cents/gallon for the federal government; 28.6 cents/gallon for the state, plus a 6% sales tax to the state. Consider county road mileages, vehicle registrations, title fees. Not free, not by a long shot.

The real problem is our legislators’ inability to problem-solve as a unit and the highly-trafficked off-ramp of monies moving away from roads and bridges into other spending – such as schools, economic development, recreation improvement, public transportation, etc. – plus special discounts for special interests like logging, milk and farm trucking.

While asking Michiganders to pay yet another use tax, political-will realities need to be a part of any tolling conversations. This $3.3 million tolling study was commissioned by Republicans in response to Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pitch to raise the gas tax 45 cents. A few years later, electric cars are now the reason why we need tolling because those drivers won’t pay gas taxes — even as we subsidize electric cars and plants with tax dollars.

We’re not toll trolls, but this is political dust in our eyes.

Incidentally, a 2007 study found electric tolling tends to: (1) raise tolls 20% to 40% when there are no toll booths to clearly assign price to distance; and (2) political toll-setting behavior becomes “less sensitive to the election calendar.” In Michigan, signs point to needing a clearly-marked route between politicians, road taxes and spending, and voter will.

Our infrastructure needs sufficient funding, but Michiganders know that money alone doesn’t solve issues such as a lack of foresight or political will.

Asking more from those who pay their fair share, under rising inflation, needs to come with straight talk, a commitment to bipartisan problem-solving and a recognition of how we got here. Otherwise, we’re potentially putting tolls on a road to nowhere.


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