Street Talk: Gas tax survey reveals public’s misconceptions


A recent survey regarding the ongoing road funding issue showcased the public’s support for increased investment — and clearly demonstrated the vast misconceptions surrounding Michigan gas taxes.

The survey was conducted by EPIC-MRA as part of a research project by economists at Michigan State University and California State University to study how much and why voters misunderstand fuel tax amounts. The survey shows half of voters overestimate the amount they pay in state gas taxes by a factor of five, according to Ronald Fisher, professor of economics at MSU.

In addition, 89 percent of people polled said state and local governments should spend more on maintenance of roads; 41 percent said state and local governments should also spend more on construction of new roads.

“It’s extremely heartening to see that a large majority of the public understands the need for increased investment in our infrastructure,” said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association. “Now we need to make sure any lingering confusion regarding gas taxes is eliminated so that everyone has a clear understanding of exactly how much it will cost.”

Fisher said voter misperception of the amount of gas tax they pay stems from thinking the gas tax rate is higher than it is, rather than overestimating the amount they drive. When asked what the average Michigan driver pays in state gasoline tax each month, 50 percent said $50 or more. The correct answer is about $10, based on the state’s 19-cent-per-gallon gas tax. The proposal that nearly passed the Michigan Senate in June would have increased that $10 by another $10 a month in a five-year phase-in. Even though drivers greatly overestimate the amount of taxes paid, the survey showed a clear majority would be willing to pay more than they do to improve Michigan’s roads.

“That $10 a month is minimal over a five-year period when you consider that many individuals have had to pay thousands of dollars annually and unexpectedly in unnecessary vehicle repairs and other costs related to our deteriorating and unsafe road conditions,” Nystrom said.

Top judged

The Business Journal’s Top Women Owned Businesses event is coming up early next year (see for details). As always, the Journal enlists help from outside the West Michigan area to judge the nominations.

This year, one of the judges carries a bit more in the credentials department.

Michelle Richards, CEED executive director and WBEC-Great Lakes president (and longtime TWOB judge), has been selected by the American Institute of Diversity and Commerce as a distinguished recipient of the 2014 Women’s Business Enterprise Hall of Fame.

Richards’ role as an advocate for women business owners and women’s business enterprise initiatives already qualified her as a worthy TWOB judge in our eyes, but it’s nice to see her efforts validated at the national level, too.

Polling place

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is releasing results of a survey that shows voters believe the city is headed in the right direction. The 500-sample survey also shows strong support for the leadership of the City Commission.

According to the survey, voters are extremely optimistic about their city. By a margin of 69 percent to 18.6 percent, voters believe the city is on the right track.

By a margin of 70.4 percent to 16.8 percent, Grand Rapids voters approve of the job being done by the City Commission.

“The poll reflects that the hard work and tough choices to keep Grand Rapids strong are paying off,” says Rick Baker, GRACC president and CEO. “There is always room for improvement, but the citizens’ confidence in Grand Rapids is remarkable.”

Of course, as with any poll, there’s a reason for the numbers — and the interpretation of those numbers. In this case, it’s the November ballot issue regarding term limits.

“We fail to see how term limits would improve the trajectory of Grand Rapids,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the chamber. “Citizens are resoundingly supporting the direction of our city, and we risk derailing that momentum by imposing term limits on our local officials.

“We have a tried and true method of hiring and firing our commissioners — they’re called elections. Let’s keep it that way.”

A heavy load

Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank’s 16-year-old Mobile Food Pantry program reached a new milestone in the fight against hunger in September, distributing its 100 millionth pound of food.

Developed in 1998 by former executive director John Arnold, the mobile pantry model provides a way to quickly distribute perishable foods like dairy, baked goods, and fresh fruits and vegetables to people in need. This idea spread quickly and has been adopted by food banks from San Diego, Calif., to Portland, Maine.

“Mobile pantries allowed, for the first time, large amounts of perishable product to be distributed to clients. Prior to that, these foods were hard to distribute in a normal pantry environment,” said Feeding America West Michigan CEO Ken Estelle.

In 2014, the food bank has distributed an average of 809,000 pounds of food per month on mobile pantries, making it likely this will be its biggest year yet.

The trucks are loaded with 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of food and delivered to a remote site, often a church or school parking lot. The food is displayed on tables where it can be collected by families.

The program has grown by 42 percent from 2008 to 2013 alone. Estelle attributes that growth to three factors: the increased quality of the food available on mobile pantries, vehicle grants that have grown the food bank’s truck fleet, and extensive underwriting from foundations and individuals.

Just decompressing

Grand Rapids DDA board chair Brian Harris made an email announcement last week that caught our eye.

Sent to friends and colleagues, the email said he had successfully sold his principal interest in H&H Metal Source in mid-October, and he provided new contact information.

Whoa! That’s big news in the Grand Rapids business community, so GRBJ asked for a brief interview to procure some details.

Exactly one hour and 17 minutes later, he replied — apologizing for not replying sooner. Harris said he was “mostly just decompressing and organizing” — kind of busy, in other words. And, he added, there was no story, “so to speak, on my currently fluid transition, so an interview would likely be unsatisfying.”

Eventually, though, he provided a few details that shed more light on the situation. He said he sold his H&H interest to his partners, who are his brother and sister-in-law.

Harris, 58, said he remains “committed to and energized by the ever-growing and ever-attractive vitality” of the city and West Michigan, and he indicated he will be continuing with his community service.

When asked if anything was wrong, Harris responded, no. “Something went really right — a successful company makes a successful transition, and a principal is blessed to be able to seek new successes at a very exciting time.”

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