National Transportation Funding Is Ailing — Is Michigan ‘Patient Zero’?

In a sight that could become more commonplace by year’s end, the state of Michigan is being forced to cancel $740 million in road and bridge repairs after its gas tax revenues fell short of the level required to secure matching funds from the federal government.

miller.jpgRep. Candice Miller (R-MI) (Photo: Macomb Daily)

The matching-funds deal requires states to pay 20 percent of the costs of most highway projects, with the federal government kicking in the 80 percent that remains. But thanks to lower gas-tax revenues brought on by diminished driving and the government’s refusal to increase the tax, economically devastated Michigan is unable to kick in its share for more than 130 projects.

Transit fans are likely to wonder why this is such bad news, given that their preferred projects are forced to line up state and local support without the lucrative federal matching funds that highways receive. Yet many of Michigan’s canceled transportation projects are not misguided Roads to Nowhere.

Three bridge repairs in the Detroit area have been called off, prompting one commuter to muse:

Provided the whole thing doesn’t collapse, I guess it will be business as usual.

It’s high time for the federal government to remedy the funding insanity that’s resulting from Americans’ welcome decision to drive less (and Congress’ unwelcome decision to let the gas tax depreciate). For one thing, California could be next — its budget meltdown has prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to consider siphoning off local gas tax revenues, which would in turn endanger federal matching funds that were destined for local road and bridge repairs.

Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) plans to introduce legislation on Capitol Hill that would give a Michigan a short-term exemption from the rules that govern transportation matching funds. Still, it’s tough to envision her effort succeeding, for one principal reason: If Michigan gets help, 48 other states — minus Alaska, which rakes in the revenue from Washington — will be lining up with the same request.

  • vnm

    Why does the Federal government fund 80% of road projects but only 33% of transit projects????

  • Are there any road expansion projects they could cancel instead? Fix it first and all, you know?

  • By cost, 20% of those Michigan projects were for new roads or capacity increases. There were not all repairs and reconstruction.

    In Michigan’s defense, we have been a longtime donor state with respect to federal transportation. We’ve been paying for other people’s roads. On top of that, our roads suffer damage from freeze-thaw cycles that many other states’ roads do not.

  • I understand Todd, but as a nation we really need to change our thinking on transportation funding. The federal government should not be promoting one form of transit as radically. I hope the best for you guys.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Todd thinks that “In Michigan’s defense, we have been a longtime donor state with respect to federal transportation.” This is really part of the ideological domination of the road lobby. Dividing up the states in to “donor” and “receptor” states with regard to gas taxes, largely an exercise in ideological mathematics, is an enormous achievement of the highway lobby. A division of the states between gas-guzzling and gas-efficient states would yield basically the same spreadsheet. Imagine if the income tax was divided the same way, where would NY be, where would be Louisiana? Yet when it comes to income taxes, or any of the other Federal tax structures, no one thinks in terms of Donor and Receptor. The entire construction of donor and receptor really works against the establishment of a generalized reciprocity politics whereby good policies can actually pass.

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