Opinion: Whitmer's gas tax a boulevard of broken dreams

Peter J. Lucido

If you’re among the estimated 3.3 million Michigan residents — the most on record — who took an automobile to their Christmas holiday destination this week, then you don’t need to be reminded of just how bad our state’s roads are, especially in Metro Detroit.

This is a view of a half-mile section of  concrete pavement along northbound I-75 between 13 Mile and 14 Mile roads in Royal Oak on Tuesday, November 26, 2019.  Construction crews recently discovered that the newly poured section of the freeway was mixed incorrectly and will need to be replaced in the spring.

On a daily basis, the region’s three main counties of Macomb, Wayne and Oakland experience the largest volume of traffic in the state. It’s a sustained wear and tear on our roads and bridges that outpaces any policy or funding mechanism currently in place that could fix or maintain them. In fact, Michigan arguably has the worst roads in the United States.

The deteriorating state of our roads has been at the forefront of political discussions from kitchen tables to the halls of the state Capitol since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled her $0.45 per gallon gas tax proposal last March. A near shutdown of state government and a months-long budget stalemate all stemmed from this debate over how to fix the state’s roads for the long term.

Gov. Whitmer says a higher gas tax is the answer, but considering the state of our roads and the fact that Michigan already has the nation’s eighth-highest gas taxes and fifth-highest registration fees, motorists are right to disapprove of her plan.

With state government raking in all this money for transportation funding — this year state government received the most on record — it becomes clearer that raising taxes is not the solution. After all, what do we have to show for it? The old tax-and-spend model has only ever gotten us to where it always does: more government, worse roads and less money in our pockets. Revisiting the well for more gas taxes is a tired, unsustainable approach — especially as the auto industry rapidly transitions to new forms of propulsion, be it hybrid-electric, battery, compressed natural gas, fuel cell, and perhaps someday, solar.

Now, more than ever, it’s time to solve our state’s true transportation problem: Public Act 51.

We should require all vehicle registration fees collected by the secretary of state to go to the county in which a vehicle is registered.

This would establish more local control over funding and maintaining our roads. Unlike the current broken system, money would be invested back into communities from where it was collected. This would ensure counties with more registered vehicles, like Macomb, Wayne, Oakland, Kent and Genesee, for example, receive a more adequate amount of road funding without sticking people with more taxes. It is a much more sustainable approach long term.   

All politics is local, as the saying goes, and even though my plan is for the greater good, entrenched interests have thus far precluded a vote on my legislation. Some, who are not content to simply complain about Lansing’s inaction, are contemplating taking matters into their own hands through a citizen-led initiative to get a PA 51 reform on the ballot. That is certainly an option.

In the end, it doesn’t matter much to me how PA 51 gets reformed so long as it gets reformed, because putting any additional amount of money through the nearly 70-year-old PA 51 road funding formula is futile.

As millions of Michiganians take to the roads this weekend to return home from Christmas celebrations and gatherings with family and friends, their time behind the wheel likely won’t be as pleasant because of our state’s worsening roads. Let’s not let another year pass before enacting a real solution to Michigan’s road funding problem. The clock is ticking, and the roads are crumbling.  

State Sen. Peter J. Lucido, R-Shelby Township, serves Michigan’s 8th Senate District and is the Senate majority whip.