Pothole Politics

Michigan’s roads are falling apart, and short-term patches won’t solve long-range infrastructure needs.

Here in Michigan, we like to joke about weather. And one of the oldest jokes is that there are two seasons: Winter and Construction. I’d like to add one to that short list: “Pothole” season, defined as that slight gap between the frozen weather of winter and the annual filling in of the potholes that happens come April and May — or even earlier, as seems to be the case this year.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know or haven’t experienced. Already this year we’ve seen the cars on the side of the road — tires shredded, wheels dented, suspensions trashed, and wallets emptied — after driving through what sometimes seems like a lunar landscape. Then we might drive in neighboring states and come to realize that it seems worse here than in other places. And guess what? It is.

Why? A few reasons. One, southeast Michigan, with its constant freeze/thaw cycles, is the perfect climate for potholes. Roads freeze and contract, then when the thawing happens, roads expand. Water gets in the cracks, freezes again, then expands, and voila … you have potholes. Lots of potholes.

To be honest, we can’t do much about that problem: Weather does what it wants. But as soon as you cross into Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, or Ontario, which have similar weather, the roads are better. What have they figured out that we haven’t?

Probably not much, but with two big exceptions: 1) Trucks that carry less weight do less damage to the roads; and 2) You get what you pay for when it comes to road construction.

A new report from the nonprofit transportation research group TRIP says 29 percent of Michigan’s roads are in what it calls “poor or mediocre” condition. That number rises to 57 percent when we are talking about the shape of major roads in metro Detroit. That doesn’t even figure in the number of bridges that need significant repairs.

It’s plainly obvious that we either haven’t been paying enough or we aren’t spending the road money we do have effectively. So what’s the solution? According to Gov. Rick Snyder, it’s more money. Facts back that up. Michigan spends about $174 per person on roads. Wisconsin, meanwhile, spends $231 per person, and Ohio spends $234. The governor says if Michigan is to compete, it will need to raise an additional $1.2 billion per year for roads. For the most part, legislators nod in agreement that something needs to be done. And that’s about it.

Road funding has been a hot-button issue in Lansing for decades. In 1997, after a marathon negotiating session in the State Senate, the then-Gov. John Engler was barely able to muster the votes to raise the gas tax by 4 cents.

It was a difficult fight for a tax-averse Republican governor to win over just enough votes in his own tax-averse party to get the measure passed — a measure that didn’t even meet the funding needs then.

Now, 17 years later, we are back at the negotiating table with little optimism a deal to increase funding will be reached. Gov. Snyder first outlined some options for the legislature on how to address the funding shortfall in 2011. They included an increase in the per gallon sales tax on fuel, which would be guaranteed to go to roads; a possible switch from a per gallon sales tax to a tax on the wholesale cost of fuel; and a possible increase in vehicle registration fees. None of those ideas effectively wooed the members.

Republicans, wary of any possible primary challenges, balked at anything that could be construed as a tax increase. Democrats — still smarting from right to work and other legislative losses and whose votes would be needed to pass any type of funding increase — balked at any plan that didn’t consider their demands on other issues.

None of those situations has changed, and if anything, the parties have become more entrenched in their positions in this election year. Even the governor seems resigned to this. In his most recent State of the State address, Snyder referred to the road-funding problem as “unfinished business” and gently prodded the legislature to act, without providing a forceful path forward. It was hardly a call to action.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be any additional money for roads this year. Just like last year, there is a budget surplus. Legislators added $350 million in one-time road funding in 2013. Should we expect something similar this year?

Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger says it’s possible. “We are able to talk about dedicating more money to roads from existing resources … I expect us to build on the $350 million in new money that we added last year … we also need to do what brought us here. Continuing to make the checkbooks of our residents healthier. When our residents’ checkbooks get healthier, that’s when we can do things like invest additional dollars in roads.”

In short, don’t expect any major changes this year. Another one-time infusion of cash may be forthcoming, but not before the majorities in the House and Senate extract an election-year tax cut first. Nobody denies this will help, but it’s far from the big fix that would address the problem long term.

What does that mean for you? It’s simple, really. Buckle up — you’re in for a bumpy ride.