Fixing the roads

HOUGHTON – It’s obvious to anyone who drives: Michigan roads in many places are less than satisfactory. To fix them will likely take more than $1 billion. Finding that money is the problem state legislators and the people of the state will have to solve.

There are many plans and suggestions being presented to find the estimated $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion above what is currently being spent on road repair and maintenance needed to fix all of the state’s roads.

Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a tax on the wholesale price of gasoline and a significant increase for vehicle registration fees.

The county road commission engineers in Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties think Snyder’s plan would work, but whether it’s that plan or another, something needs to be done quickly to find the extra money needed to get the work done.

Douglas Mills, Baraga County Road Commission engineer, said there has not been an increase in state funding for county road commissions since 1997, and from 2001 to 2003, funding from all sources was at its peak.

“We’re actually going to receive less (now) than we did 10 years ago,” he said.

Despite the loss of revenue, Mills said costs for fuel, asphalt and equipment continue to rise, and because of that discrepancy, less general service on roads is done, and fewer improvements are made.

The current tax on fuel in Michigan is 6 percent, but Mills said that goes to funding education.

“The big thing in Michigan is the tax on fuel doesn’t go to transportation,” he said. “I’m not advocating taking from other programs. (But) I feel the use tax should be for transportation.”

Besides doing road repair and maintenance, Mills said county road commissions, particularly in the Upper Peninsula, need to do snow removal, which is very expensive but necessary.

“It’s the biggest safety project we do,” he said.

Mills said the Legislature needs to take the road-funding issue off the back burner and give it priority.

Kevin Harju, Houghton County Road Commission engineer, said he likes Snyder’s plan because it puts the cost for developing road funding on those who benefit the most from using them.

“It should be a user’s fee,” he said.

Harju said there is also a tax of 19 cents per gallon of fuel sold at the pump for road infrastructure in Michigan, but that revenue continues to decline due to fewer miles driven and an increase in fuel-efficient vehicles.

“You don’t capture a true user fee from those vehicles,” he said.

Michigan’s user fee funding for road work is one of the lowest in the country, Harju said.

Currently, Harju said the Houghton County Road Commission is operating at 2002 funding levels.

This year, revenues are stable, but for each of the three previous years there was a 3 percent decrease, which is about $100,000 per year.

Although it varies due to needs each year, Harju said the annual budget for the HCRC is from $5 million to $9 million. The amount varies depending on grants available, also.

“That fluctuates quite a bit,” he said.

The costs of road salt and sand continue to rise, also, Harju said, and those items are very necessary in this climate.

The HCRC is responsible for 550 miles of paved roads, and 300 miles of gravel roads, and Harju said he’s had to return some of the paved roads in the county to gravel because of the increasing costs of maintaining and repairing paved roads.

Harju also said a solution for funding roads in Michigan needs to be found soon.

“The longer we wait, the more expensive it’s going to get,” he said.

Gregg Patrick, Keweenaw County Road Commission engineer, said whether it’s Snyder’s plan or another, something has to be done to increase road funding in Michigan.

“Anything would be a good idea,” he said.

Patrick said costs for the KCRC have been increasing from 40 to more than 100 percent in some cases.

“It’s just been crazy,” he said.

His budget is about $2 million per year, Patrick said, some of which is federal funding.

Patrick said there are many plans to increase road funding in the state, and he looks at them all.

“We’re trying to digest them all,” he said. “We’re waiting until they all come together.”

Patrick said he expects the members of the Legislature to take up the road-funding issue when they return from their Easter break.

He estimates it will take 10 to 15 years to get the Keweenaw County primary roads in good condition, Patrick said. Of course, at the end of that time, work will have to be started over.

Currently, Patrick said it will take an extra $800,000 to $1 million to get all roads in Keweenaw County in good shape.

Patrick said he thinks a funding solution for roads will be found soon.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “We’re at the end of our ropes here.”

Michael Maloney, Ontonagon County Road Commission engineer, said he likes Snyder’s plan for road funding.

“I think it will work,” he said.

Besides state and federal funding for roads, there is a proposal to create a county registration fee, which would have to be approved by voters.

“That’s something new,” he said.

Although an increase in road funding is needed, Maloney said developing a fair distribution formula for that money is needed, also.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

Also, Maloney said counties need to be part of the discussion about funding distribution.

“From the beginning, counties weren’t part of it,” he said.

Costs for road commissions are continuing with no break expected in the future, Maloney said.

“There’s some scary things out there,” he said.

When he started at OCRC 25 years ago, Maloney said about 20 miles of roads were paved each year. Now, 1 mile of road is paved, and many roads are being returned to gravel.

The funding formula for Michigan is called Act 51, which was created in 1951, and Maloney said it needs to be updated or replaced very soon.

“I believe we’re going to see an increase in funding,” he said. “Whether it’s enough or not, I don’t know.”