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Why Michigan's roads are so bad... and what we can do about it

I travel to Toledo once a week, and if you make that trip, you know how wretched the roads are in some places.

The governor does too. For two years, he’s been trying to get the legislature to come up with new money to pay for the roads. Unfortunately, I can now report that our lawmakers have gone from doing nothing about Medicaid to doing nothing about the roads, unless moaning and finger-pointing count.

Yesterday, the Gongwer News Service produced a story which said there was finally optimism something would happen. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of it.

It did quote Speaker of the House Jase Bolger literally whining, “It is true the House Democrats have failed to offer any solutions for transportation funding, but that is par for the course.” The Speaker  added, “Some people might get the idea that Democrats would rather complain than cooperate.”

He might have added, “Mommy, make them stop picking on me.” What makes this ridiculous is that Republicans are in solid control of both houses. What the Democrats think should be irrelevant. Jase Bolger’s Republicans could pass any road bill they want to without the least bit of Democratic support.

Except, well, Bolger lacks control of his caucus. Some of his members are Tea Party nuts who won’t vote for any tax, no matter what, so he needs Democrats.

Governor Snyder wanted to raise new money for the roads with a combination of new gasoline taxes and higher car registration fees. That seemed fair, because it meant the burden of paying for road improvements would fall most heavily on those who use them.

People like me, for example. But Republicans won’t go for that. The only thing they might be willing to consider is putting a sales tax increase on the ballot. Economists tend not to like that, since sales taxes are regressive -- they hit the poor harder -- and would also cost those who don’t drive at all.

But Republicans like it because the voters would have to approve it themselves, which means they couldn’t blame them for raising taxes.

To put it on the ballot would require a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature, however, which would take some Democratic support. Democrats want this tied to some new money for the schools, which is evidently why Bolger lashed out at them. So, if you are looking for our lawmakers to do something about our terrible roads, don’t hold your breath.

By the way, today’s Detroit Free Press outlines another reason our roads are being ground to powder. Huge overweight trucks who love it here because our fines are a joke. Let’s say troopers in Ohio catch a truck hauling 300 tons for 150 miles.They fine that driver one thousand five hundred and sixty-nine dollars. Wisconsin would fine them $575 bucks.

Our highest fine is fifty dollars. And that money doesn’t even go to roads. It goes to local libraries.

Now, you don’t have to be a big government liberal to know there’s something radically wrong here. The newspaper asked Wayne Schmidt, chair of the House Transportation Committee, about this, and he said “We’re looking at adjusting some of those fees.”  Sure they are. Looking.

So … check your shocks, and don’t hold your breath. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.

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