The problem with the latest road-funding bill

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We hear that our solons in Lansing have come up with a road funding bill that passed the House of Representatives. It's a project that state legislators have been hashing out for what seems like forever now, while taxpayers have been fed up with the quality of roads. According to an EPIC/MRA poll taken in April, only 5 percent of Michiganders believe the state's roads are in good or excellent condition The same poll said 29 percent declared roads in "only fair condition"; 67 percent said "poor" condition.

When this many people agree something is a problem, you'd think state leaders would leap into action. They have, after a fashion, proposing numerous bills that haven't passed muster. The legal language approved yesterday included some fuel tax hikes and a provision that registration fees would jump about 40 percent next year.

While it's nice to know that Lansing's lawmakers are getting serious about addressing an issue that has lingered over several years, some legal observers don't think this plan will pass the senate without significant changes.

We hope one of them is that registration fees don't jump so high. And to get into that subject requires asking a question few in Lansing seem to have posed:

What is damaging our roads?

Well, for one thing, maybe it's not such a hot idea for the Michigan Department of Transportation to embark on road expansion projects when we don't have the money to maintain the roads that we have. It's a point critics of the department have made for years, illustrated best by the almost $3 billion the department will spend over the next 20 years to expand I-94 and I-75.

But beyond that, if we're really interested in preserving the roads we have, maybe we should look at heavy semi-trucks. Based on our observations, other states that share our regional freeze-thaw cycle seem to have much better roads. They also have more stringent weight limits on trucks that drive on them: Outside Michigan, trucks are limited to 80,000 pounds; in Michigan trucks are limited to a maximum gross vehicle weight of 164,000 pounds.

Gee, do you think there could be something to this theory?

Now, MDOT would argue that those more stringent limits don't make much difference. It's all thanks to "Michigan's Unique Truck-Weight Law." What's more, MDOT has pages and pages of engineering gobbledegook explaining just why these heavier trucks, given the way their weight is distributed among several axles, aren't necessarily to blame for damage done. (Whether this research was peer-reviewed, we don't know.)

Yet, the fact remains that the study's executive summary opens with this admission: "truck loads are the primary cause of pavement distresses."

In light of this, is it fair to ask the almost millions of licensed drivers in the state of Michigan to pay 40 percent more to register the millions of private vehicles they own? Or would it be more equitable to raise taxes on fuel, particularly diesel fuel? A semi-truck can travel about a maximum of eight miles on a gallon on level road, whereas a nifty little Ford Fiesta speeds through about 45 highway miles per gallon. Do five or six economy cars really do the same amount of damage to Michigan's roads as a semi weighing 82 tons while carrying profitable cargo?

Could it also be the people who operate large trucking enterprises have undue influence on who funds roads? For example, take billionaire Manuel Moroun, who owns trucking carrier Central Transport International and has a controlling stake in Universal Truckload Services Inc., and also has a reputation for passing out "donations" to Michigan lawmakers. You can bet your childhood Tonka truck that the Morouns are actively involved in any issues that affect their bottom lines.

Given the tenor of Lansing, however, you can almost be certain that regressive taxation will be the order of the day. Sadly, soaring registration fees will sock it to some of the poorest Michigan families. But, hey, just turn up "Brothers of the Highway" and cheer up, willya?


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