MDOT: 50-year roads mandate means sky-high costs

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing — Nearly half of a 15-cent gas tax hike the Michigan Senate approved this week would be squirreled away in a “lock box” until lawmakers are satisfied that road agencies are building roads to last “at least” half a century.

The mandate’s creator calls it a quest for better quality. Road officials call it a budget buster.

The Senate’s plan calls for the creation of a “50-year roads lock box fund” in which a seven-cent gas tax increase collected after Jan. 1, 2017 would be held until lawmakers approve “specific higher quality, longer life cycle road construction” projects.

Republican Sen. Mike Shirkey, sponsor of the provision, said the gas tax increase presents the Legislature with a “one-time opportunity” to challenge the Michigan Department of Transportation to build roads that last longer than the current 20-year life-cycle.

“I believe it’s time for us to set a higher goal,” Shirkey said in a Thursday interview. “I’ll call it similar to Kennedy challenging (Americans) to go to the moon by the end of the (1960s) decade.”

But longer-lasting highways would “cost a lot more money” by requiring wider right-of-ways and raising road levels to make water drain faster away from the base of a roadway, said Curtis Bleech, pavement operations engineer at MDOT.

“Road agencies, neither the Department of Transportation or local road agencies, have the funding to be able to do those kinds of things to roads,” he said.

Creating uniform standards for road designs that last 50 years is “a crap shoot,” he said, because environmental and geological factors vary. Roads bases drain differently in clay-heavy southeast Michigan than they do in sandy west Michigan or the Upper Peninsula’s rocky terrain, Bleech said.

“If we did do a 50-year design, we’d have to do the base and raise the roads (higher) … to help guard against future climate change,” he said.

Democrats mocked the lock box idea. They envisioned former Vice President Al Gore’s infamous “lock box” idea for protecting Social Security, not Democratic President John F. Kennedy’s space race against the former Soviet Union as the Senate narrowly passed the gas tax increase Wednesday.

“I believe Republicans call it the Al Gore lock box,” Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich quipped.

Ananich said the “lock box” is nothing more than a “slush fund” for the majority party to “pick and choose which roads get funded.”

“It’s a way for allowing pork barrel spending … that makes a bad plan even worse,” the Flint Democrat said.

In the 2017 fiscal year, $266.8 million of the $721.3 million in new revenue from the gas tax increases would be held in the “lock box,” according to a Senate Fiscal Agency report published Thursday.

By the next year, $351.5 million could be subject to the “lock box” provision, amounting to 42 percent of all new gas tax revenue. The Senate’s plan calls for a three-step increase in the 19-cent gas tax and 15-cent diesel tax to make both levies 34 cents per gallon by Jan. 1, 2017.

“We’re going to lock box the third (gas tax increase) until the Legislature is satisfied that we have ... done our best to see if we can affect a paradigm shift in how we build roads in Michigan,” Shirkey told The Detroit News.

Since the House and Senate road bills differ, the lock box idea will be part of negotiations between Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Snyder.

For county road commissions, the task of rebuilding less-traveled two-lane blacktop roads to last half a century would be “extremely challenging,” said Ed Noyola, deputy director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

“When it comes to that standard of design for a local road, it just doesn’t seem applicable,” Noyola said. “We don’t reconstruct a lot of roads.”

Shirkey, a first-term senator from Jackson County, is unconvinced.

“It may be true that we can’t afford to make every road a 50-year road,” Shirkey said. “But I don’t have much interest in listening to what we can’t do.”

Shirkey said he would be “perfectly happy” with a plan to build roads that last 35 years, if that’s more affordable for the state’s transportation fund.

The Senate’s “lock box” provision in House Bill 4615 calls for MDOT to convene a task force by Oct. 1 that examines materials and construction methods “with a goal of roads lasting at least 50 years” and reduce maintenance costs.

The bill calls for a public report on the costs associated with building 50-year roads by Dec. 1 and an implementation plan from MDOT by July 1 of next year.

“If (MDOT’s) emphasis is what we can’t do, they’re going to be disappointed because I’m going to send them back to the drawing board,” Shirkey said.

Noyola, of the county road agencies group, said counties are “grateful” for the Senate’s road funding plan but said they shouldn’t be subject to such a mandate for the lifespan of roads.

“It sure seems a little one sided as to who can use that money and it’s going to lock out a lot of rural counties,” Noyola said.

Tony Greiner, owner of Metro 25 auto repair shop at Six Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit, said he believes Michigan roads don’t last as long as they do in other countries because government agencies take the lowest bid for materials and construction.

“The cheapest bid isn’t really the most economical way to go,” Greiner said.

Contrasting road plans

State House raises $1.16 billion over four years by:

■ Creating a new fee for hybrid and electric vehicles.

■ Hiking the diesel tax rate from 15 cents per gallon to 19 cents.

■ Dedicating future inflationary increases in fuel taxes to roads.

■ Levy new $30 fee on hybrid vehicles; new $100 fee for electric vehicles

■ Eliminating the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

■ Cutting budget of Michigan Economic Development Corp. by $135 million

■ Redistributing $909 million in existing sales and income taxes to roads.

Senate raises $1.5 billion over three years by:

■ Raising the 19-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 15 cents.

■ Raising the 15-cents-a-gallon diesel tax by 19 cents.

■ Fuel tax increases generate $822 million by 2018 fiscal year

■ Levy new $30 fee on hybrid vehicles; new $100 fee for electric vehicles

■ Redistributing $700 million in existing state tax revenue to roads.

■ Reserving money from 7-cent gas tax hike in 2017 for MDOT and county road agencies that prove they’re building roads to last 50 years.

■ Requiring cut in the 4.25 percent income tax rate in any year when general revenue exceeded the rate of inflation.

■ Keeps Earned Income Tax Credit and makes no specific cuts to MEDC budget.

Source: Detroit News research

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