Money For Roads Doesn’t Go Where It’s Needed The Most

Roads in the worst condition are not a priority

In a recent social media post, state Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, indirectly pointed to one of the challenges to improving the condition of Michigan roads.

Ananich, who is the Michigan Senate’s minority leader, said in a March 20 Twitter post: “MI Republicans: tossing a few pennies in a pothole and making a wish won’t fix our roads. I tried it just to see. Now let’s work together to find a real solution.”

Ananich also posted a short video in which he throws a handful of pennies into a pothole.

Michigan roads are funded through Public Act 51 of 1951 (PA 51), which governs how money gets allocated between state, county and local road agencies. Enacted in 1951, the law represented a compromise between rural and urban lawmakers. The Citizens Research Council of Michigan calls it the “third rail” of highway funding.

“The antiquated and inefficient formula used for sharing road funds with state and local road agencies guarantees that much of this funding will not go to those roads experiencing the most traffic or those in the worst condition,” the council stated in a report it released last month.

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The law has not been changed in 67 years, mainly because in a big state there has never been a consensus on how to strike a balance between connecting far-flung communities and having smooth roads within them.

Under existing law, 39 percent of the money available for Michigan roads each year goes to the state Department of Transportation, 39 percent goes to county road commissions and 22 percent goes to cities and villages.

The formula also applies to $175 million in general state tax dollars that legislators have earmarked to fix roads this year, on top of gas tax and vehicle registration tax revenue. Of that $175 million, $68 million will go to state roads, $68 million to county projects and $38 million to cities. The money not spent by the state is divided among 83 counties and 533 cities and villages.

The Citizens Research Council said the state's system of divvying up the money doesn’t take into consideration which roads need repairs the most.

“Given the current PA 51 funding distribution system, it is nearly impossible to address the funding needs of heavily traveled roads or roads in greater need of repair without significantly increasing the allocation of revenues to those roads with less traffic or that have relatively lesser needs,” Craig Thiel, the council’s research director, said in an email. “Under this system, an increase in funding, regardless if it is one-time or ongoing in nature, will result in the same percentage increase for each road agency. This is inefficient."

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