Editorial: Setback in Michigan

This Editorial appears in the May 11 print edition of Transport Topics.

Even with Interstate 94 potholes the size of Big Ten linebackers, Michigan voters declared decisively they do not want to endure an increase in the sales tax to pay for much-needed repairs to battered roads and bridges.

It probably was a tactical error by state leaders to use the broad-based sales tax to finance highways. Diesel and gasoline taxes are more tightly linked to road usage and therefore would have made a better, more logical target, but a coalition of political interests could not reach agreement on such a proposal.

Still, with “no” votes outstripping the “yes” count by a 4-1 ratio, a fuel-tax proposal might not have made it into effect either (see story, p. 3).

This loss is unfortunate, we think. Our hope was that Michigan would follow Iowa, whose Legislature and governor acted wisely earlier this year to enact a transportation plan paid for with fuel taxes.

Iowa farmers, manufacturers and truckers know they need good roads to conduct business effectively and managed to convince Democratic and Republican officeholders.

Texas voters approved using half the funds flowing annually into the state’s rainy day fund for roads, rather than increase taxes, according to news reports.

Michigan’s per-capita road spending ranks 49th among states, with only Georgia doing less. The state’s indifference to concrete and asphalt generated $3.8 billion worth of extra car and truck repair bills in 2013, an engineering study said — that’s a lot of blown tires, busted axles and wracked suspensions.

Despite that, Michigan still joined Massachusetts and Missouri, where voters also rejected spending more tax money on transportation.

Our preferences are informed by our experience with trucking but not based on favoring the trucking industry over society as a whole. The nation needs world-class infrastructure, not simply for trucking but for everyone.

The argument in favor of a solid national highway network is the lengthy, well-documented experience of what has happened since the United States decided in the 1950s to build the Interstate Highway System.

Create an environment that helps move commerce, and you will usually get lots of it — with an accompanying eruption of income and jobs.

If the alternative is economic stagnation, deterioration, decay and entropy, we’ll take highway investment.

We salute and wish good luck to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who helped craft the plan that just failed, yet immediately said he would redouble his efforts to develop a new solution for transportation funding.