Editorial: Pave now, pay later

The Detroit News

In turning to heavy borrowing to fix Michigan’s dismal roads, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is following the course that got the state into this mess in the first place.

The governor said in her State of the State address Tuesday she is bypassing the Legislature and issuing $3.5 billion in construction bonds to give a boost to repaving work.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her Michigan State of the State address at the Capitol.

Whitmer abandoned her call for a massive fuel tax hike — she proposed 45 cents a gallon in last year’s speech — after meeting resistance from lawmakers and the public.

Realistically, the bond proposal was the last option left to her. She was unwilling to shift funds from other spending priorities and couldn't sell lawmakers or the public on a tax hike.

This way she doesn’t have to get the OK of either the Legislature or voters. And there’s no question that Michigan can't neglect the deterioration of its roads and bridges a moment longer. 

These horrific roads make the state less competitive for jobs and investment, cost vehicle owners a fortune in repairs and present a public danger. They have to be fixed.

But no one should pretend that bonding for road work is either a courageous or ideal solution.

Borrowing continues Michigan’s tradition of passing along the responsibility for maintaining its infrastructure. Decades of deferring money that should have gone to roads — specifically the 6% sales tax on fuel sales — is what allowed its streets and highways to come to such a sorry state.

Whitmer was on the right track, sort of, in asking for a significant fuel tax hike. But she never sold the public on her proposal, and couldn’t even get the support of her own Democratic House caucus. 

While roads rank as the top priority for Michigan voters, more than half don’t think it’s necessary to raise more money to fix them, according to recent polling.

With an election coming this fall in which all House seats will be on the ballot, it would be foolish to expect that a fuel tax hike would fare any better this year. House members running for reelection are not going to support a huge tax hike. That’s particularly true of Republicans, who can expect to face extremely well-funded opponents as Democrats commit to taking the House.

Details of Whitmer’s plan are still emerging. We would caution her to seek shorter-term bonds that will be retired before the roads they're paying for are in need of repair again. Ten- or 15-year bonds are preferable to 20-year issues, even though the cost of debt services will be higher.

Bonds obviously are not a cost-free option. Servicing $3.5 billion in bonds will cost roughly $350 million annually.

The money will only go to major state highways. It will do little for smaller roads. Fixing them will be left to taxpayers in counties and communities to pay for through local tax levies.

Whitmer also did not recommend a rework of Act 51, which sets the formula for distributing road money and favors highways in less populated areas of the state. She should work with the Legislature on a fix before taking on such large debt.

The governor advised her audience that when they see a multitude of orange barrels this summer, they should know it’s her administration that is fixing the roads. Future generations may have cause to remember that as well when they get the bill for today's work.