Opinion: Spend smarter, not more, to fix our roads

Annie Patnaude
If both Gov. Whitmer’s proposal and a federal gas tax hike were passed, Michigan would have the highest gas taxes in the nation — taxes hard-working Michiganians can’t afford, Patnaude writes.

Are you ready to pay almost $300 more in taxes for your gasoline this year? That’s how much more Michigan households will have to pay annually if Congress hikes the federal gas tax.

Officials on both sides of the aisle in Washington, D.C. are discussing just that — this time more than doubling the rate to 43 cents

Here at home, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed to increase our state gas tax by 45 cents.

Thankfully, the state Senate did not include the 45-cent increase in its transportation budget, and we hope that the state House will also reject the governor’s proposal as the debate advances.

If both Whitmer’s proposal and a federal gas tax hike were passed, Michigan would have the highest gas taxes in the nation — taxes hard-working Michiganians can’t afford.

We believe our elected representatives at the federal and state levels should reject these proposals, not only because they would add unneeded burdens on Michigan families, but because the gas tax revenue that the federal government already collects is enough to improve our roads and bridges.

The Highway Trust Fund was established in 1956 as an investment in our national infrastructure. It included the modern-day federal gas tax, then set at three cents per gallon. The revenues generated from this tax went into the fund, which would then be used to pay for highway construction costs.

Ever since then, this investment has become a raw deal for the taxpayers. The government raided the Highway Trust Fund, mismanaging its funds for politicians’ pet projects. Throughout the years, the fund’s monies continued to be diverted to a host of questionable items, like sanctuaries for white squirrels and random museum projects (driving simulators — stationary cars surrounded by big video screens).

Thanks to labor and environmental regulations like the Davis-Bacon Act — which required the government to pay “prevailing wages” on federally funded construction projects — and a complicated thicket of other federal restrictions, highway projects completed with money from the fund are routinely delayed and run over budget. Voluminous federal studies can take almost seven years to complete — and a host of other permits and clearances can take many years to secure as well.

Decades of mismanagement led the U.S. Department of Transportation to declare the fund bankrupt in 2008.

If you think that this led to smart reforms, think again. Since 2008, $103 million more from the fund has spent han it has accrued.The Treasury had to transfer $143.6 billion from its general fund — our taxpayer dollars — during that time just to remain solvent. Last year, the fund’s one-year deficit was projected to be $9 billion.

We were told that raising taxes would be needed to make the Fund solvent again. This mindset led lawmakers to raise the gas tax over and over, from three cents in 1956 to its current rate of 18.40 cents per gallon (or 24.40 cents for diesel). Raising the gas tax at an exponential rate has done nothing to remedy the situation — if anything, it’s only encouraged more and more irresponsible spending.

If that wasn’t enough, our state increased its gas tax as recently as 2017 and now has the sixth highest gas tax rate in the country.

There is a better way forward. Spend smarter to get better roads. We can do that by spending gas tax revenue on the roads and bridges it was intended for. Cut unnecessary and costly regulations in laws like Davis-Bacon. Allow states to have greater freedom to construct and maintain their roads and bridges.

The time has come to drive our policies in the right direction. We urge state and federal lawmakers to honor their stewardship of our taxpayer dollars by saying no to imposing additional burdens on our families.

Annie Patnaude is Michigan state director of Americans for Prosperity.