Transit, Transportation, and the Money Question III

An overview of state funding for transportation.

The poor condition of Michigan’s roads and bridges is almost legendary.  I remember my puzzlement on arriving here in 1986 and wondering if I had landed in a third-world country.  This Pure Michigan parody on potholes expresses what many of us have felt at one time.  Legislators have raised alarms.  As a result of P.A. 221 of 2007, a Transportation Funding Task Force (nicknamed “TF2”) was formed and issued a report in late 2008  detailing the many problems.  The task force declared, “Michigan is moving from underinvesting in transportation, to disinvesting in transportation.”  It stated that Michigan was falling short even of enough revenue to provide matching funds to obtain available Federal funds.  (We have not attempted to discover whether this happened.)  UPDATE: There is indeed a shortfall, which was made up by a general fund appropriation in the current budget. However, despite the report’s call for more revenue to be raised via several possibilities including vehicle registration fee increases, no new initiatives were taken.

Governor Rick Snyder, who was elected in 2010, has made transportation one of his key issues.  He issued a special message on transportation in October 2011.  He then followed up with his budget message for FY 2014 and FY 2015, which states:

The plan addresses the lack of appropriate road funding by creating a new funding model based on a gasoline and diesel tax of 33 cents a gallon; and increasing registration taxes for vehicles and heavy trucks. This will cost a typical Michigan family an estimated $120 per vehicle each year.

Additionally, the governor recommends a local option that would allow Michigan’s 83 counties to raise additional revenue for local transportation needs. Subject to local voters, a local vehicle registration tax of 0.18 percent of a vehicle’s list price would generate $280 million that counties could use to fix local roads or invest in public transportation.

The Governor’s budget (which is his proposal to the Michigan Legislature) thus proposes new revenue. In addition, it proposes a redirection of priorities in transportation.  Here is an excellent summary of the transportation budget recommendations and the changes from prior years.   As it states:

The Transportation budget supports state and local highway programs, public transportation programs, aeronautics programs, and administration of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). Approximately two-thirds of the revenue in this budget comes from state restricted revenue, with approximately one-third from federal sources. Almost all the state-restricted revenue in this budget is constitutionally restricted – from motor fuel taxes and vehicle registration taxes. (emphasis added)

A Long Tradition of Dividing Between Constituencies

Transportation funding is mostly directed by Public Act 51 of 1951, , which dictates how revenue collected from transportation users (including gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees) are allocated. These are gathered into the Michigan Transportation Fund and then reallocated according to formula.  The MTF is a “restricted” fund that is limited to the uses dictated by P.A. 51.

After several transfers to some specific programs and departments, the balance of the MTF is divided up.  First,  10%  of the balance (approximately 8.5% of the MTF) is transferred to the Comprehensive Transportation Fund (CTF).  (The CTF funds public transit and other non-auto transportation.) Article IX, Section 9 of the Michigan Constitution specifies that  “Not less than 90 per cent. . . . shall be used exclusively for . . . roads, streets, and bridges . . .”  The remainder is divided up as follows:

State Trunkline Fund (STF):     39.1%

County Road Commissions:     39.1%

Cities and Villages:                       21.8%

The portion going to county road commissions is used for county roads and roads in rural and urbanized townships.   It is generally agreed that there is never enough money to do the job.  The Washtenaw County Road Commission  (WCRC) has been the subject of constant complaint ever since I became acquainted with the County.  It has a separate board of three commissioners, who serve for 6-year terms.  The road commissioners are appointed by the county Board of Commissioners, and that is the sole influence the BOC has over them.  (Another constant has been the complaints about Road Commissioner Fred Veigel, who has been reappointed constantly for nearly two decades. He is powerful politically because of his position as the Huron Valley Labor Council head.) Generally, every locality considers that it is being treated unfairly on attention to its roads.  County commissioners are powerless to address the complaints of their constituents.

Thus, Governor Snyder got their attention last year when he signed a pair of bills that empower county boards of commissioners to absorb the road commission within their own shop. The bills, now P.A. 14 and P.A. 15,  set a deadline of January 1, 2015 for this action to take place within a county.  The Washtenaw County BOC has been having a conversation about absorbing the WCRC, according to this report from  Conan Smith, who has expressed interest in doing away with the road commission in the past, is encouraging discussion of a county transportation reorganization.  Some of the themes mentioned, such as a conflation of roads with other means of transportation and a new local tax, are likely to raise hackles, especially in the townships.  From the story:

Yousef Rabhi:  “The funding aspect should take a holistic view to transportation”,  mentioning bike lanes, pedestrian access and alternative modes of transportation.

Conan Smith:  “Our transportation system needs to change to meet the needs of a different kind of user.  We’ve focused on transportation too long as roads as primary and public transit as secondary.”

Smith and Rabhi have both been big supporters of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority, which is meeting for the first time on April 10.   Smith has really pushed the envelope with his maneuvers on the RTA, including using his position as the Executive Director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and his marriage to Senator Rebekah Warren to shepherd it through the Legislature with Washtenaw County appended to this metropolitan Detroit transit authority.  He also managed to appoint the two RTA board members from Washtenaw just before ending his term as Chair of the BOC.  It is not clear how his notion of having the BOC take on more authority over transportation in the county would integrate with that thrust.

Meanwhile, the talk of more state revenue has caused some excitement at the WCRC itself.  Its managing director, Roy Townsend, is quoted in another report as having plenty of ideas on how to spend additional road funds raised by the Governor.  A quick look at the map included in the article seems to indicate that most of the projects are on rural roads.

Clearly, there are very different visions of how additional transportation funds should be spent  – fixing roads? Or more transit?  One complication not always mentioned is that the 10% constitutional limit for transit applies across the board for governmental expenditures on transportation, not just to the MTF.

Next: special aspects of funding for transit.

UPDATE: The House Fiscal Agency has just released an excellent overview of transportation funding, which includes a discussion of  many of the concerns and issues with the gap between funding and needs.

SECOND UPDATE:   As of May 29, 2013, the transportation budget has not been finalized, in that the Legislature has not adopted it.  However, a conference committee has resolved differences between the House and Senate transportation budgets.  Here is a summary.

THIRD UPDATE:   This commentary in Bridge Magazine points out that the Legislature missed a deadline (June 1) to put new funding measures on “an upcoming” statewide ballot.  Instead, the budget contains short-term fixes.

FOURTH UPDATE: Here is a recent (June 10, 2013)  update from Transportation for Michigan on Michigan legislative action regarding transportation funding.

FIFTH UPDATE:  Another update (February 10, 2014) from Transportation for Michigan on the Governor’s budget for state transportation funding.  Not much good news.

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