Crews work on a new bridge at Interstate 94 and Van Dyke. States are taking varying routes to boost funds for such projects. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Lansing — Half of the nation's governors this year have proposed large road and bridge investments, but Gov. Rick Snyder's $1.2 billion plan is among those facing legislative roadblocks.
Other states echo the sales pitch of Snyder: Step up repairs now or face a much bigger bill later. Snyder says a $25 billion repair bill will come due if Michiganians don't speed up repairs in the next decade.
But a reluctance among motorists to pay higher taxes and registration fees has many governors trying to avoid such proposals or to spread the cost in ways residents might find more palatable. Although GOP governors in Wyoming and Virginia have approved large road revenue increases, most others aren't seeking higher gas taxes — the traditional funding mechanism.
It is a pattern seen in the GOP-run Legislature in Lansing, where plans for a sales tax hike and other ideas have been floated but haven't gained traction.
"They've realized it's still hard, politically, to say we're just going to straight-up raise the gas tax," said Sean Slone, senior transportation policy analyst at The Council of State Governments. "They'll lower a gas tax here and raise another tax there … I don't know if they're trying to confuse voters or what."
The urgency to increase road funding is fueled by state leaders' realization they can't wait for a solution from Congress, which has been studying how to pay for fixing deteriorating highways built more than a half-century ago, said an official with Washington-based transportation advocacy group TRIP.
"For a few years, it appeared they thought that, 'Yeah, it's a problem, but something will happen,'" said Frank Moretti, policy and research director of TRIP, a nonprofit backed by road construction firms, unions and others supporting more road work. "There's a much greater willingness now to look at comprehensive transportation policies. States are facing the same challenges: aging infrastructure … and an inability to go ahead and make the improvements necessary for economic development."
States tap different sources
There is no single road map among states to raise more money to fix highways and bridges.
Virginia settled on a multifaceted plan that shows the political sensitivity involved with this issue. Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed eliminating a 17.5-cents-a-gallon fuel tax and replacing it with a big enough sales tax boost to bring in $900 million more per year for roadwork, said Virginia Department of Transportation press secretary Tamara Rollison.
McDonnell accepted a legislative plan raising general sales taxes and motor-vehicle sales taxes, calling for a new Internet sales tax, general fund transfers and a $100 annual fee on hybrid vehicles. It's expected to raise $3.5 billion over five years. The state also has toll roads, whose rates remain unchanged.
But the deal earned potential GOP 2016 presidential contender McDonnell a snub from last week's Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland and ads branding him as author of "the largest tax increase in Virginia history."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker suggested selling as many as 37 power and heating plants at universities and prisons to back bonds for a two-year $6.4-billion transportation plan. The Walker administration argues it is cheaper for the state to buy power from private operators.
Under a newer proposal, the state would borrow nearly $1 billion, using $404 million for major state highways, $302 million for two large projects and $60 million for rail. The state faces declining road revenues, but Walker opposes higher fuel taxes.
Indiana is looking for more money even after leasing its Indiana Toll Road for $3.8 billion to an Australian-Spanish consortium in 2006. Most of nearly $4 billion was used or earmarked to build 375 miles of roads, repair 5,000 miles of older roads and fix 700 bridges in the past few years. The last of the money will be committed by July, and the state wants to avoid cutting in half the now-customary $1-billion-plus in annual road repair spending.
Oregon may become the first state to use vehicle miles as a tax source — but only on plug-in electric vehicles averaging 55 miles per hour, such as Chevy Volt. Its transportation department is ready to propose a 1.5 cent-per-mile tax on plug-ins, said James Whitty, head of its Office of Innovative Partnerships.
While there are just "a couple thousand" such vehicles on Oregon roads now, "there are state legislators and policymakers who look to this, when in place, as something that might lead to greater revenues," Whitty said, because other highly efficient vehicles can be added later.
Wyoming stuck with traditional user fees. Its legislature followed the recommendation of GOP Gov. Matt Mead by voting to hike the state tax on gasoline and diesel fuel to 24 cents a gallon, up 10 cents from its longtime 14-cent-per-gallon rate.
Opponents called it a burden for residents in a slow economy, but the hike was backed by a powerful coalition of business interests and the Wyoming Taxpayers Association.
Leery of raising taxes
Snyder wasn't quite as direct as Mead. Snyder recommended fuel taxes and vehicle registration fee hikes averaging a combined $120 per motorist.
The Michigan Legislature has been hesitant to sign on. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, countered with a plan that takes a cue from Virginia: Replace the 6 percent sales tax on fuels with a 1 percent sales tax increase going to schools and local governments; replace the 19-cent-a-gallon fuel tax with a percentage rate raising as much money for roads as currently comes from the fuel tax and 6 percent sales tax combined.
Richardville then put his plan on hold to give opponents time to argue against any tax increase for road repairs.
Slone of the Council of State Governments said policymakers still are leery of fuel tax hikes because constituents dislike them.
State Rep. Frank Foster agreed. The Petoskey Republican said he has found higher fuel taxes to be "very unpopular" with northern Michiganians in his town halls. They seem to consider a state sales tax increase a bit more acceptable, he said.
"What they want most is for us to set (an adequate road funding formula) and leave it alone," Foster said. "They don't want us coming back every 10 years asking for more."