Rep. Dingell to lawmakers: Get courage to fix roads

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Mackinac Island — U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell says state lawmakers lack the fortitude to reach a solution on how to pay for repairing Michigan’s crumbling roads.

“You all need to tell your state legislators to get some balls,” the Dearborn Democrat said during Friday session on the final day of the Mackinac Policy Conference. “If we don't want to be a Third World country, we’ve got to fix our infrastructure.”

Dingell’s blunt assessment of the political stalemate on road funding in Lansing came as transportation infrastructure policy dominated the discussions among state business and political leaders who gathered on Mackinac Island this week for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s policy conference.

It also came as Congress continues with temporary funding patches for the Highway Trust Fund, whose declining revenues have led to a corresponding fall in federal aid for Michigan’s roads and bridges. Congress has been unable to agree on a long-term way to increase road funding.

Dingell said she favors a user-fee based system that taxes motorists to pay for the roads they damage, but would not commit to a particular plan. Congress in January briefly flirted with the idea of raising the federal gas tax, but the talk quickly died because of overwhelming opposition from most lawmakers.

State legislators are under growing political pressure to pass a long-term road funding bill this summer that generates at least $1.2 billion more annually after Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a sales and gas tax increase on the May 5 ballot.

Michigan’s 19-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax was last raised in 1997. The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon was last increased in 1993.

The emphasis from most of Friday’s speakers was on the need for raising taxes and road user fees — an approach backed by Gov. Rick Snyder but something the Republican-controlled House and Senate have not addressed. In the past two years, lawmakers have said their constituents don’t support a higher gasoline tax.

“We just have to get over the fact that we’re going to need new revenue to fix the problem,” said S. Evan Weiner, chief operating officer of the Edw. C. Levy Co., a road materials company.

“We believe the solution is going to mostly depend on new (tax) revenues,” said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan — a group of corporate and higher education leaders.

Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said there’s “a lot of strain” on the state budget through rising Medicaid costs and implementation of a voter-approved personal property tax cut for businesses.

“There’s not $1.5 billion lying around that we can grab onto,” Lupher said.

But Joseph Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, disagreed that taxes must be raised or the state’s economic development funds can’t be diverted to repairing roads. The free-market-oriented center has proposed a plan on how to cut the state budget to shift existing money and anticipated revenue growth to road funding.

“Every time we have to increase taxes, it makes every job worth less,” Lehman said.

Westland Mayor William Wild said lawmakers need to include local officials in the road funding and spending talks so they can tell their residents which streets and highways will get fixed with new taxes.

“Whatever we agree to do, mayors should have a seat at the table,” Wild said. “I think mayors bring a perspective to the table that you don't get from polling or focus groups.”

In a separate panel discussion, Dingell and fellow freshmen Reps. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, and Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield each expressed support for Congress passing a longer-term highway funding bill instead of another temporary fix.

Earlier this month, Congress sent President Barack Obama the 12th temporary transportation funding bill in six years.

“It’s no way to run a rodeo,” Trott said.

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