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Commentary: Roads to ruin

If you had the idea that our elected representatives in the legislature were mature, rational adults, yesterday might have cured you of the idea.  As many of us know, the state’s roads are falling apart.

Yesterday, the Transportation Asset Management Council said that less than 1/5 of Michigan Roads eligible for federal highway funding are in good shape. A third are in poor condition. The rest are in fair condition, sliding towards poor.

Roads, by the way, don’t heal themselves, especially when heavy trucks keep driving on them. Local roads, which are not eligible for federal assistance, are in far worse shape, with slightly over half in poor condition.

Even the expressways aren’t great. Sixty percent are in fair condition, 16 percent poor. Those roads, however, are most likely to be improved. The rest of the system is what we need to worry about, unless you never plan on going anywhere, or you drive a military surplus tank.

Now to his credit, the governor is concerned about our roads crumbling into powder and potholes. He knows that would be bad for business. So he introduced a plan to raise the $1.2 billion a year, which experts say is the minimum needed if we are going to fix our roads.

The governor wanted to do this partly by raising the gas tax and partly by increasing car and truck registration fees. This made sense to me, though I think he wanted to raise those fees too much on cars and not nearly enough on those big commercial tractor-trailers.

My guess is that few would pay much notice to an increase in the per-gallon gas tax. The price of gas fluctuates constantly. This would also be the fairest way to fund road improvement, since the more you drive; the more you would pay. That sounds logical -- except to the members of Governor Snyder’s party in the legislature, who wanted nothing to do with his plan.

They know they need to come up with money for the roads, but are afraid of Tea Partiers who will try to defeat them for any tax increase whatsoever. They were talking instead about funding road improvements by adding another penny to the sales tax.

The bad part about that is that this is a regressive tax, which would proportionally hurt poor people the most, including those who don’t drive at all.

The good part, from the lawmakers standpoint, is that the voters would have to approve a sales tax boost, so they’d have only themselves to blame for raising their own taxes. Nothing like lawmakers abdicating their responsibility.

Trouble is, some Republicans are unlikely to vote for any tax, no matter how logical. They still need some votes from Democrats, especially in the House.

But according to the Gongwer News Service, here’s what House Minority Leader Tim Griemel said about that yesterday: “We’re not going to negotiate with terrorists who threaten all kinds of evil things if we don’t come to the table.”

He was evidently referring to a veiled threat that the Republicans would lower wage rates on government construction projects.

Well, it is nice to know we are led by grownups. And just remember, we voted for these people.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by 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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