Editorial: Road Spending Reforms Needed

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(Courtesy of The Detroit News)

Additional highway spending should be accompanied by changes in inefficient rules

Most of the focus on Gov. Rick Snyder’s message on infrastructure investment has been on his proposal for a new way of taxing gasoline purchases or the continuing controversy over a new international bridge across the Detroit River. But the governor also rightly discussed ways to streamline the way highways and roads are managed and taxes are delivered.

A major portion of this portion of the governor’s message was about applying new technology and new ways of measuring the life span of materials used in roads. That Michigan should use the best technical practices possible in investing and maintaining its roads and bridges should not be controversial.

But some of his suggestions will generate controversy — but he’s on the right side of the argument. As Snyder noted, the 60-year-old state law governing the distribution of road tax funds — however they are calculated — contains “archaic formulas that sprinkle state transportation revenue across all 617 road agencies, many of them responsible for only a few miles of road. The formulas are so outdated that two cities actually receive funds despite having no public roads or bridges in their jurisdiction.”

The Michigan Citizens Research Council in 2008 analyzed the effect of the road funding formula — which favors funding based on miles of road rather than on how heavily those roads are used. As a result, it found that in 2006 the formula’s distribution of funds to local and county road agencies in rural Baraga County in the Upper Peninsula amounted to $270 for each county resident. The equivalent for Wayne County residents was about $89.

When former Gov. John Engler sought and obtained a gasoline tax hike, he sought a similar reform. It was defeated by the Legislature. But he was right to seek it, and so is Snyder a decade and a half later. It is unreasonable to ask people to pay more in road tax funds only to have them distributed in an inefficient manner.

The governor is also seeking legislation that would allow counties to absorb their road commissions into general county government. As he noted, Wayne and Macomb counties have already done so. Wayne County’s Road Commission was notorious as a source of political patronage and payroll padding before it was abolished by county voters in the mid-1980s.

Not all road commissions are behaving badly, but their existence blurs accountability for road maintenance, which is probably why no other state has them. This will be a tough fight for state lawmakers and local county commissioners, but it’s a debate worth having.

Finally, the governor did not bring this issue up, but if Michigan is going to get the best value for its transportation spending, it ought to eliminate the state prevailing wage — which essentially requires that the state and localities pay union wages for public works projects. As we have long argued, governments should have the same opportunity as private firms to seek the best price on their construction projects. Congress’ Governmental Accountability Office argued three decades ago that the federal government should rescind its equivalent law, the Davis-Bacon Act.

The governor is right that the state needs to invest more in its infrastructure — and it should do it in a way that provides the best return for Michigan’s taxpayers.

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