What do potholes have to do with a local transit millage? More than you might have thought.
Underlying the discussion of a new millage to expand our local transit system is the general frustration of the public at large with Michigan’s transportation system, most specifically the condition of the roads. Almost every political discussion now ends with a public cry: What about the potholes? The liberal political group MoveOn.Org, usually concerned with social issues, has a petition asking state lawmakers to fix the potholes. The Michigan Democratic Party is even trying to make this a campaign issue with a Snyderholes website. This political message encapsulates the transportation issue: everyone agrees that it is a huge problem, and also that someone else ought to pay for it. Note that the suggestion is that business taxes, rather than gas taxes, should be fixing our crumbling infrastructure.
Transportation funding is complex and always contentious. But it is important to understand it if one wishes to make any prescriptions for change. See our posts on Transit, Transportation and the Money Question (all available from the Transportation Page). See especially the post on the Comprehensive Transportation Fund as it pertains to transit, and the post explaining Act 51. Understanding these two pillars of transportation funding in Michigan is key to understanding the fix we find ourselves in. Transportation has become a zero sum game in that multiple constituencies are chasing fewer and fewer dollars for deeply felt needs. A central problem in Michigan is that the main source of transportation funding (the state gas tax) is less and less adequate to pay for the increasing needs in infrastructure and service.
Federal funds a problem
A tax on gasoline is intended to be a user tax in which users of roads pay for them. It has been the principal means of paying for most forms of transportation. In the Federal Government, the (Federal) gas tax is the basis of what is called the Highway Trust Fund. That fund is regulated by the transportation act, currently MAP-21 (expires in September 2014). Here is SEMCOG’s summary of MAP-21. MAP-21 is the source of most highway and transit funds that come through to Michigan communities via the Michigan Department of Transportation. An important thing to know about the Highway Trust Fund is that it essentially funds an entitlement, since funds are distributed according to the formula set up by the current transportation bill. For example, Federal support for transit projects is distributed by formula rather than by earmarks or other special treatment. But since this revenue source is actually trending toward zero, transportation needs nationally look rather desperate. Here is an analysis by Transportation for America, a nonprofit interest group. Certainly there is no room there for helping Michigan solve its problems.
So, returning to Michigan: a logical solution to insufficient funds would be to raise the gas tax rate, or to add some other form of tax to it. Last year, Governor Snyder’s budget message proposed an ambitious program of a new way of computing gasoline and diesel taxes plus new registration taxes. He also proposed a local option that would allow counties to have a separate registration fee to help pay for local transportation. In our tax-aversive state, this was (as we say in government circles) dead on arrival. Instead, the Legislature allocated modest sums from the general fund in a supplemental appropriation to patch up a couple of major problems (one of which was the money needed to keep Amtrak’s Wolverine line running).
This year, it has been much the same story, though the Governor dropped the special fixes and simply made budgetary recommendations. Here is the final version of the supplemental bill (SB 608), as summarized by the Senate Fiscal Agency. A very rough-and-ready approach assigned $100 million from the General Fund to pay for “special winter road maintenance” and $115 million for “priority road projects” (to be determined by politicians, natch). Here’s what they said about the special winter road maintenance:
Sec. 702. Transportation. Requires the funds appropriated for special winter road maintenance to be distributed to the State Trunkline Fund, county road commissions, and cities and villages, in the same percentages described in Public Act 51 of 1951, and requires distribution to each entity in amounts proportional to the current year amounts distributed from the Michigan Transportation Fund. Also requires that special winter road maintenance funds be used only for road maintenance, excluding administrative, overhead, and other indirect costs.
So that may help with the potholes in the short run. (Note the reference to the percentages in P.A. 51. This is practically the stone tablets of transportation funding in Michigan. That was P.A. 51 of 1951, and heaven help those who wish to change those allocations. See more information on those percentages here.) But we haven’t even begun to address generally bad road conditions, including more rural roads that have degraded far beyond potholes. There are bridges that are unsafe. (The Legislature advised some warning signs.)
The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, which includes several commissioners representing rural townships, have been wrestling with the lack of adequate funding for the Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC) for many months. While Ann Arbor and other cities and villages in the County have their own allocation (21.8%) from Act 51 funds, the rural roads are entrusted to the Road Commission, an appointed body. They use their own allocation (39.1%) to address all maintenance problems and some of the improvements for rural roads. The news is not good. As the Ann Arbor News reported, county (i.e., rural) roads are in really bad shape, both from years of “deferred maintenance” and because of the rough winter. The Ann Arbor Chronicle has reported substantively on the efforts of the BOC to address a problem for which they do not really have jurisdiction (the WCRC has a completely separate administration and governing board; the commission members are appointed by the BOC, but it has no influence over day-to-day decisions). The BOC has kicked around ideas about absorbing the Road Commission into their own body (in essence, becoming the WCRC) and appointed a subcommittee to look into that possibility, as well as expanding the size of the WCRC and making it an elective body. According to a report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle of their March 1, 2014 meeting, it appears that none of those options will be exercised.
A possibility that appears still to be alive is that the BOC would use a pre-Headlee Act 283 (P.A. 283 of 1909) to levy a millage on all the county for roads. The discussion, as reported by the Chronicle, seemed to veer between the idea that Ann Arbor and other cities would be allocated parts of this and that use of the funds would be decided by the WCRC. Unlike post-Headlee legislation, this tax could be enacted without a vote of the public. Township representatives at the BOC meeting were enthusiastic about this, given support by Conan Smith (an Ann Arbor Commissioner). But Commissioner Dan Smith was instead suggesting a county-wide road millage to be approved by the voters.
The problem is that most cities and villages already levy special taxes on their residents to pay for their own road maintenance. For example, Ann Arbor voters have consistently renewed a local road millage. For 2013, it was 2.125 mills.
We come back to the issues of governance and equity. Who should pay and who benefits? The discussion at the BOC elucidated those nicely. Commissioner Conan Smith explained the political problems entailed. He is a regionalist and favors having Ann Arbor taxpayers help to pay for rural Washtenaw County roads. But should Ann Arbor residents help to pay for roads in areas outside the city, especially if they have no say in how those additional funds are spent?
Interestingly, Conan Smith (a city commissioner) and Dan Smith (a rural commissioner) had different solutions, where Dan Smith would allow Ann Arbor voters to make this decision for themselves (a countywide millage is unlikely to pass without a majority vote in Ann Arbor), while Conan Smith would prefer to impose a solution (using Act 283 ) that would bypass the voters. Conan Smith, who recently announced that he would be running again for his seat on the BOC, acknowledged that he would be moving against the desires of many of his constituents and that this would cause some political problems. As quoted by the Chronicle,
The road commission doesn’t have control over streets in Ann Arbor. So if he advocates for a tax to fund roads outside the city, and his constituents are looking at the poor condition of city streets, “I’m going to get hammered, right?”… (and later)… “He said he’s cast many votes that were counter to the direct, immediate financial interests of his constituents. For example, he cited the fact that he was in the majority in voting to fund the sheriff’s road patrols. It was a heavily-divided city-versus-township issue, and at least one Ann Arbor commissioner needed to support it in order to pass. He said he was a “different kind of politician than others, because I take that countywide perspective.”
Apparently much of Conan Smith’s interest in this was in bringing the function of the WCRC into the BOC. In the end, he was the only vote in favor of that option.
There was evidently no discussion of when a countywide roads millage would either be imposed or voted on, or the rate of that millage. Presumably the commissioners are aware of potential overlap with the urban core transit millage.
One pothole away from transit
The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority brought up potholes in their March 20 meeting. The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of the meeting included some moments of perhaps unintentional hilarity as board members sought to incorporate information about transportation funding into their own concerns. Lobbyists Clark Harder and Dusty Fancher were there to brief the board on events in Lansing. It was pointed out that the public is very concerned about the condition of the roads, which board members evidently took as a bit of challenge to their own priorities. Eli Cooper stressed the importance of continuing to improve funding for transit. From the Chronicle’s account:
There’s an opportunity right now because the potholes are creating focus. “We should never let a crisis go unused,” he quipped. Harder agreed with Cooper, but said that some of the MPTA members get a little antsy and concerned when everything they read in the newspaper is about potholes. But that is what drives the message statewide. And if that is what they have to use to get more funding for public transportation, then Harder was OK with that –as long as they don’t lose sight of the big picture.
This moved Larry Krieg to suggest a slogan for the AAATA, “You are one pothole away from public transit”. Presumably this was meant to say that your auto might be disabled so that you would be dependent on transit.
CEO Michael Ford, who receives a comfortable automobile allowance from the AAATA, supported this concept by sharing that “he’d had an incident with a pothole this week and found himself taking the bus. “It’s nice to have that option,” he said.
UPDATE: Evidently the transit-charm-against-misfortune theme is not restricted to AAATA. Suburban Detroit’s SMART bus system is coming up for an increased transit millage vote. Megan Owens of Transit Riders United says “Any one of us is one broken leg or one bad pothole away from public transit.” Ouch. That happened to me. But my own bus route 13 wouldn’t take me to evening meetings – it quits too early.
SECOND UPDATE: MDOT has announced the amounts awarded to each municipality from the special appropriation.
“The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) allocated the one-time appropriation of $100 million according to the Public Act 51 of 1951 road funding formula, meaning MDOT received $39.1 million, counties $39.1 million, and cities and villages $21.8 million.”
“The Act 51 formula is complex. How much a county, city or village receives in funding through Act 51 depends on several factors, including road mileage and population. Counties, cities and villages receiving portions of the $60.9 million must use the money for winter maintenance costs, and not for things such as administration, overhead or other indirect costs.”
Here is the list of awards to counties, cities and villages the list of Michigan counties, cities and villages with their award amounts. Washtenaw County (i.e., the Road Commission) will receive $1,091,502.29 and Ann Arbor will have $461,171.49. I suspect that the potholes will consume those funds rather handily.
THIRD UPDATE: A proposal has surfaced to rework Michigan’s fuel taxes. Whether it would actually increase money going to roads is questionable, and it is also not clear what effect it would have on transit funding. Here are a few details as reported by MLive.
FOURTH UPDATE: A commenter on a recent Ann Arbor News report about transit millage supporters and opponents seems to suggest that I am the source of the anonymous flyer linked to in the report. While that flyer does reference potholes, it is a rather crude and questionable statement that buses cause potholes. I don’t support that thesis (haven’t bothered to do their math), am not in the habit of putting out anonymous flyers (I sign my own blog and Twitter account), and emphatically reject any part in preparing or distributing that flyer.
In making some inquiries, I have been told that the flyer was distributed by email among a group of friends. It is too bad that the Ann Arbor News chose to publish it.
FIFTH UPDATE: The Legislature is moving to assign the $115 million in “priority road projects”. Expectations (as reported in the Detroit Free Press) are that the assignments will mirror the process from last year, in which almost all projects were assigned to districts represented by Republicans. Here is the list of such projects from 2013. Washtenaw County is noticeably missing from the list. We are completely represented by Democrats.