State needs long-term funding solution for roads

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Now that the legislature and governor have approved a $1.5 billion program to attract new business to Michigan, one important issue remains: If Michigan wants to entice new economic development, the condition of our county road system must be addressed. Roads under the jurisdiction of county road agencies comprise 75% of Michigan’s public road network; their condition directly correlates to the image of a community and its appeal to potential investors.

The County Road Association of Michigan’s 2021 County Road Investment Plan indicates that an additional $1.8 billion annually is needed to restore the county and local roads under its statutory responsibility. One may assume that the recently enacted $1.2 trillion federal surface transportation program, better known as the “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA),” is the long-awaited answer. While this, indeed, is a large sum, I do not foresee the anticipated increase designated for county road agencies to have the transformational impact that is needed.

Most of the funding for roads in the IIJA is, in fact, the reauthorization of funding designated under the traditional federal transportation program. Of the $2 billion per year allocated to Michigan through 2026, the actual annual increase equates to about $330 million. The bulk of the new money will be used on state highways because, by formula, MDOT receives 75% of federal funds and the remaining 25% is distributed among 83 county road agencies, 276 cities and 257 villages.

Furthermore, the use of federal funding for road improvements is restricted to only a portion of Michigan’s public road network. In Kent County, for example, federal funds only can be used on 665 miles of the total 1,975 miles of county roads. That leaves 1,310 miles ineligible to benefit from the increase in federal dollars. CRA’s 2021 County Road Investment Plan indicates that 48% of federal aid-eligible county roads are in poor condition. Of roads not eligible for federal aid, 54% are in poor condition.

Adding to the challenge is the loss of revenue to local transportation agencies from the Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF) that has occurred as a side effect of COVID-19. In Kent County, for example, the decreases in vehicle registration fees and gas tax will lead to an estimated 15% revenue decrease over three years compared to pre-pandemic projections. Not surprisingly, this level of revenue decrease is being experienced by other county road agencies throughout the state and negatively impacts the ability to improve county roads and provide essential services to keep them in good condition.

As we begin the new year, my hope is that legislative leaders address the issue of county road funding with the same sense of urgency and bipartisanship that they demonstrated with the new business attraction program. Specifically, I ask them to consider the following:

  1. Provide a supplemental allocation of funds during 2022 to replace lost MTF revenue.
  2. Oppose efforts to rescind the indexing of the fuel tax enacted in 2015.
  3. Develop long-term funding solution that addresses the backlog of county road needs.

Steven Warren is managing director of the Kent County Road Commission.

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