Whitmer’s plan spends more on roads in metro areas

Potholes in downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

Should Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pass her massive gas tax increase through a leery Legislature, her proposal would bypass an “inefficient,” almost 70-year-old mechanism for distributing road repair money.

Since 1951, Michigan has traditionally used Public Act 51 as the primary mechanism for doling out state dollars for road repairs to local units of government. A recent report from the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan points out that the act does not take into account road conditions or road usage, and tends to favor lesser-traveled, rural roads.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Budget Director Chris Kolb at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

“Division of the funds among the local road agencies is primarily based on road miles, population, and vehicle registrations,” according to the CRC report. “These rudimentary measures do not begin to address funding to the highest levels of need. Rural areas contain 69 percent of roads, yet represent 29.8 percent of road usage.”

To Whitmer, the emphasis needs to be placed on roads in the state’s more densely populated areas because they get more use.  

“We need to fix these most heavily-trafficked roads that have the most damage,” Whitmer told reporters on Tuesday following her budget presentation. “That’s precisely what this budget does.”

Under Whitmer’s proposal, 47 percent of the new road revenues would go to the state’s interstates and other freeways; 30 percent would go toward “principal arterials,” or highly-travelled non-freeway roads; with the rest of the money being used lesser-travelled roads, bridges and “innovative” public transit projects.

Sen. Jon Bumstead at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

Following Whitmer’s budget proposal, Paul Ajegba, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), told reporters that this funding formula would help the state’s cities and counties to “free up some of the money they were going to use on these roads anyway to work on neighborhoods and things like that.”

The urban-rural divide in Michigan’s Legislature emerged quickly during Whitmer’s budget presentation, with legislators like state Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo), vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noting how much constituents in his rural northern Michigan district benefit from the policy.

Likewise, legislators from urban and suburban areas say that Act 51 redirects needed road dollars from their districts and sends it to more sparsely populated areas of the state.

“My constituents don’t like it,” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing), Appropriations minority vice chair. “I would assume many of us on both sides of the aisle that live in more urban communities like Oakland and Macomb counties would feel the same way.”

Sen. Curtis Hertel | Casey Hull

Budget Director Chris Kolb assured rural lawmakers that existing gas tax revenues would still be distributed using the Act 51 formula.

Whitmer has left the door open to revisiting the funding mechanism entirely, but notes that the budget season isn’t the right time to do that.

“Going back and renegotiating every dime that goes through P.A. 51 is maybe something that should be done at the appropriate time, but that’s not something we’re taking on right now,” Whitmer said. “This budget is about trying to fix the problems that are the most glaring that we are confronting, that’s jeopardizing our safety on the roads.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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