And Another Thing About Roads...

Lawmakers can fix the roads without raising taxes

Michigan residents are not likely to be happy with whatever lawmakers decide to do on the roads. It’s tough to please voters on the issue.

There is a lot of pressure to hike taxes. The pressure comes not just from the governor, who wants to use her $2.5 billion tax hike to spend $1.9 billion on the roads and $600 million on other priorities, but from every other spending interest in the state. Schools, universities, local governments, business subsidy interests and other direct recipients of taxpayer funding rarely argue about the ineffectiveness of others’ spending, and they cheer for each other’s tax hikes.

But people are generally skeptical of tax increases. It should not come as a surprise that they might want roads to be improved without having to put further money toward the cause. And of course, we’d all live in a better world if roads could fix themselves.

There are plenty of ways that lawmakers can fix the roads without raising taxes, like finding money in the budget or using more of the extra money the state collects in taxes as the economy grows. But the spending interests are uninterested in using current revenue sources. Instead, they care more about getting more tax dollars into state government.

Lawmakers have already found more money for the roads. State road funding is up from $2.0 billion in 2011 to $3.6 billion in the current year, due in part to a $600 million increase in taxes in 2015.

And there is more coming. The Senate found another $93 million and the House found $366 million, all without additional tax hikes.

But whatever road funding solution occurs, it won’t end the discussion. It’s never a settled issue. Transportation budgets need to be passed every year, and there are always more demands than revenue, for the roads or anything else.

Besides, it is difficult to bind future legislators. Any decision made today, even if it is called a “long term plan,” must be approved by tomorrow’s legislators, who may have other priorities. The only thing that ensures continued road funding in the future is its popularity, or at least our lawmakers’ guesses at road funding popularity.

Things change, which means that today’s road plan might not work in tomorrow’s world. The task of building quality roads is just as subject to costs as it is to revenues, and neither is fully certain in an unpredictable future. In other words, any roads spending plan may prove to be insufficient if costs are increasing, which they have been. It’s also possible that autonomous or electric vehicles will surge in popularity, which could reduce tax collections (and also, money for the roads), but we won’t know what that means for state road policies until it happens, if it happens at all.

Even if lawmakers find a way to improve the trajectory of road conditions, not all the roads can be fixed instantly. These are long-term construction projects, and it will take years for the state to get up to the targets that transportation managers set for road quality.

Even if a road-fixing campaign were to be so successful that state officials think they have met their targets, motorists may think otherwise. For there are always going to be potholes, and people form their own views of road quality through their daily experiences. And their experiences will dictate whether they think politicians have done something about the roads, and their experiences matter more than the projections from road managers. It doesn’t take driving on many bad roads to think that the roads are getting worse, regardless of what the experts say.

Moreover, people don’t like the process of getting to better road conditions. It should be obvious, but they don’t like construction. It disrupts the routines of residents and businesses alike, and it brings detours or, more annoying, delays. During the recession, I was surprised to see signs saying that a particular road project was funded by the stimulus package. It is not something you’re happy about when you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Even with all that, people do want better roads. Roads are owned by government and government managers ought to keep them in good condition, and tax money ought to be spent efficiently to maintain them. Doing something about the roads is inevitable, as people also won’t tolerate deplorable conditions. Though some things discourage lawmakers from putting more into road funding, lawmakers deserve some credit for taking their responsibility for the roads seriously.

There is no way to please everyone. There is no moment of victory. No long-term plans will last long. And while they ought to make roads a larger priority for next year’s budget, they shouldn’t expect accolades for it.