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Finley: Time is right to raise fuel tax

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The stars are aligning for Michigan to finally bust its most stubborn political stand-off: raising money to fix its embarrassing roads.

The state Senate, on a strong bipartisan vote, approved a switch to a wholesale tax on fuel that could raise up to $1.5 billion a year — the exact amount Gov. Rick Snyder says is needed to smooth the highway system and keep it that way.

This is the right time — and perhaps the only time — to get this essential piece of business done.

With the Legislature in lame duck session, many of the lawmakers who previously feared the political price of voting to raise taxes are now out of reach of the voters. The remaining lawmakers have two years to explain their support, and hopefully by then residents will be pleased with the results.

But the biggest thing working in favor of a resolution is the plunge in gasoline prices, which now stand at below $3 a gallon at most stations in Michigan. For the first time in years, I can fill up my truck completely before being cut-off by the $100 limit.

Tacking on the estimated 17 cents a gallon expected when the state switches from a per-gallon tax at the pump to a wholesale tax would take the price back to $3.15 a gallon or so, which just six months ago would have seemed like an answered prayer.

Yes, motorists would notice the hike. But not as much as they would if the per gallon price was still $3.75, as it was in March.

This is not expected to be a short-term price dip. The U.S. Energy Dept. predicted this week lower prices would be the norm for all of 2015, estimating gasoline would average $2.94 a gallon.

The bill the Senate passed goes now to the House, where the cadre of "no tax hike" Republicans who killed it in the spring remain unconvinced Michigan needs more money for roads.

This crew insists if spending priorities were rearranged, if the sales tax on gasoline was devoted to the roads, if Michigan had tougher construction standards and lower truck weights, there would be more than enough money to keep the highways in repair. And if my aunt had different parts, she'd be my uncle.

So far, the obstructionists have not been able to pull together support for an alternative plan that would get the roads fixed.

If the lame duck House doesn't come on board, chances are slimmer for getting a transportation deal done when the new legislative session convenes in January. And new band of tea party zealots are joining the Legislature, and they've already vowed not to cooperate or compromise on much of anything.

Committing to rebuilding the infrastructure is the responsible course. Crumbling roads make Michigan less competitive for jobs and investment. They make the state look like some third world country. And they're a flat-out pain in the fanny to drive on.

Motorists who gripe and moan all winter about potholes and busted tires and rims also have to come to the reality that the roads won't heal themselves. It takes money.

Michigan hasn't raised its fuel taxes in nearly 20 years, not because more revenue wasn't needed, but because policymakers could never find the courage.

This is the moment to get it done.

(313) 222-2064

Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.