Thank Retired Politicians For Awful Roads

I live in Michigan, and the road conditions here are an absolute mess.  Only one-third of roads are in good shape.

A 2013 review showed a full one-third of roads rated in poor condition, which means that they need to be replaced.  They’re beyond where patching or resurfacing can do any good.  Roads in poor shape need to be rebuilt from the ground up.  On top of that, the remaining one-third are in fair condition, meaning that they’ll be in poor shape pretty soon.

Keep in mind that this study was done prior to two winters, the 2013-14 version which was the snowiest and coldest in modern history, meaning that the deterioration has likely accelerated since this study was done.

It’s bad and it’s only getting worse.

Current Lawmakers Hold Blame…But How Much

Roads are a mess because there is simply not enough money to fix the roads, both at the federal and state levels.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

I know Michigan is not alone in bad road conditions, but since we’re among the worst, and because I live here, I’ll focus on that.  The numbers I’ve heard is that Michigan needs around $2.2 billion dollars per year to bring the current roads up to shape, and then keep them in good shape.  Between state funding and federal funding, they’re spending around half that amount, with just around $1 billion being spent on the roads last year.

That means that less than half the needed repairs are being performed, and the problem is compounded with these two kickers:

  • Lower funding means that many repairs are funded so that they are essentially mb-2015-02-potholeuseless.  Instead of laying a new 5-inch topcoat on a road, they’ll put down 2-inches, which means that the ‘fix’ costs less, but only lasts a fraction of the time as a full repair.
  • Many problems are simply ignored, which makes them more costly down the road. Ideally, a road that slips from good to fair condition is repaired, bringing it back up to good condition.  Since we don’t have the funding, fair roads aren’t touched, and instead they deteriorate that much faster to poor condition.

Sounds pretty grim, huh?

I tell you, it is.

Our lawmakers here in the state have been ‘trying’ (and I use that term very loosely) to address the problem.  They haven’t been able to.  Two separate attempts were made last year that would have fixed the issue, but the State House and State Senate could not agree on a proposal either time.  The Senate was all set to vote a plan that would have raised fuel taxes and other related fees and make it good to go.  The House said no go.  See, here in Michigan we have a good portion of the actual land area belonging to the Upper Peninsula and other rural areas where they don’t have too many roads, and the conditions aren’t as bad or as important.  So, what happens?  Their representatives vote no.  They see it as their citizens would be paying increased taxes to support the improvement of the roads outside of the area, so each proposal gets voted down.

And nothing gets done.  Except the roads continue to get worse.

The current proposal that they ‘agreed on’ is to do nothing, and let the voters decide on a 1-cent per dollar increase in the state sales tax, which would raise almost another billion dollars for the roads.  Sounds pretty good from a funding standpoint, but it’s getting little support.  Voters don’t want the buck passed to them, they want the people whose job it is to do the work.  My personal issue is that the increased tax would only affect residents, but not businesses.  We have a lot of businesses that use the roads and create wear and tear, so it seems very unfair that they would not contribute to the increased funding.  At least with a fuel tax, they would have.

So, that seems to be going nowhere.

On top of it all, the Feds aren’t kicking that much money in these days.

Road Problems Could Have Largely Been Avoided

I don’t know how roads are in your neck of the woods, but if they’re bad, you can blame politicians that are likely retired, or even dead.

From a Michigan perspective, here are the last time that the funding sources were raised that gives us our road repair money:

  • State tax – 1997
  • Federal tax – 1993

Yep, it’s been at least 18 years since the funding sources have increased that fund our roads.

Now, I remember when the state raised the taxes in 1997.  It increased total funding to….about $1 billion dollars.  The same as we have available today.

That was all fine and dandy back in 1997, but that doesn’t work anymore.  Everything costs more money today than it did in 1997, including everything to do with building roads.  Workers get paid more, materials cost more…well, you get the picture.

Essentially, we’re pretty much back where we started from when the gas tax was raised…18 years ago.

And, on the Federal level, it’s even worse.  It’s been twenty two years.

Bad News To Worse

Here’s the real kick in the pants.  On both the state and federal level, we’re not just failing to collect more tax to match the increases in costs, we’re actually collecting less!  Not only have costs gotten higher in the 18 or 22 years since these amounts were put forward, but fuel economy has gotten better.  So, we’re actually using less gas overall than we did back in the 1990’s.  That’s great in many senses, but unfortunately, the roads still need attention and repair.

Three Simple Words Could Have Fixed This

The roads are a mess.  The system is a mess.  And, to think it all could have been avoided on both the state and federal level had three words been inserted in to the underlying legislation:

indexed to inflation

That’s all we needed to do.  It was that simple. Had the taxes that were put in place in the 1990’s been indexed to inflation, guess what would have happened?  They would have risen slowly, over time, to effectively match the rising costs associated with the roads.

Would it have been perfect?  No.  There likely would have been a gap because of the fuel economy issue, but it would be a heck of a lot smaller gap than we have today, and the paradox is that fixing a smaller gap would have probably been easier.

Now that the gap has grown and grown and grown, the ability and willingness to fix it becomes a bigger issue.

Imagine, if you will, that both of the taxes, state and federal, had been indexed to inflation.  I’m just throwing out guesses, but let’s say that would have led to $1.8 billion being spent on roads, meaning that we have a $400 million gap.

Right now, asking voters for $1.2 billion is political suicide and so it turns to an automatic no for many voters.  If that were cut down to one-third of the ask, don’t you think that makes it a little bit more likely that something could be considered?

Instead, we’re in this political game of chicken.

Nobody Likes Taxes

Now, I lean more Republican than Democrat, and I know that nobody likes paying more taxes and I know that many people think that gas is/was too high in price as it is, and many would scream at a big 20 cent jump (again, just playing with numbers).  I get that and I agree with that, but if 1 penny a year had been added on over the last 18-22 years, do you think we’d even notice today?

See, I’m actually fine with an increase, because if we were all fine with it back in the 1990’s, I just look at it that we’re paying for inflation and that we probably should have been paying this all along.  And, we would have had the lawmakers at the time been smart enough to add that wording.

I don’t know where the funding fights will land.  I know it’s now a big issue on the Federal level, and here in Michigan I see this dragging on for a long time, while our roads continue to fail.  I just hope that if it does ever get fixed that they figure out to add those three words, indexed to inflation.  If they do, it will save a lot of people a lot of heartache 15-20 years down the road.

A road that, if done right, may actually be in good shape.  We can only dream, right?

Readers, what are the road conditions in your area? Is your state suffering from a funding shortage?  What do you think about indexing taxes like this to inflation?

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11 thoughts on “Thank Retired Politicians For Awful Roads

  1. Gas taxes and other sales taxes are regressive and hurt middle and lower income people. Before looking at such taxes to fix infrastructure, revenues might be raised by fairer income taxes which call on corporations and high earners to pay a share more proportional to their incomes…just as poor and middle class earners already do.

    • I raised the point in my article that matches yours, that I think it’s unfair that businesses don’t pay, when their employees, their delivery trucks, etc. all use the roads and cause the wear and tear that require the work necessary. Some of that burden should be placed on businesses.

  2. During campaign all candidates for elections promise to do that and do this but when they already at the position they forgot their promises. Well, that’s what Politicians do!

  3. Aggravation with a capital A!!!!

    Overall, the entire national infrastructure — roads, bridges, gas lines, power lines — is getting pretty decrepit. And as you point out, nobody wants to pay for upgrades. Guess it’s always the other guy who uses them, eh?

    That said, I used to serve on the city roads commission. That was a real eye-opener. The cost of repaving a road is simply brain-banging. Widening a road? Astonishing. And building a new one? Incomprehensible!

    The longer we wait to repair these things, though, the more it’s gonna cost us. Sooner or later…

  4. Bad roads are a problem across the U.S., and a higher gas tax could help pay for a lot of repairs. It’s a touchy subject that no member of Congress wants to touch because no one wants to raise taxes. But if you want to solve the problem, then users should pay to fill all of those potholes and crumbling bridges across the country.

    • Nobody wants to raise taxes, but the thing people need to realize is that they can either pay the tax or pay to have their car fixed over and over again because of the damages caused by poor roads. I’d rather pay the tax and not worry about destroying my car on roads that are more potholes than pavement!

  5. Don’t ask me how, but where I live in suburban Chicago the roads are actually in really good shape. Not sure how this has come to be, but it’s not a worry here.

    What’s interesting about reading how you’re noticing that Michigan roads aren’t so good is that my Dad lived in Michigan in the 1960’s. He said at the time that roads in the state were in great shape, and that among people he knew Michigan was known for really good roads. I guess at that time the auto industry was humming along just fine, and Southeast Michigan was truly still an economic powerhouse. You know, I always root for good things to happen to Detroit (except maybe not the sports teams when they play my local teams though!).
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    • Yes, I seem to remember that most agree that the decline of our road system started in the 1970’s, when the auto industry started having troubles and losing a lot of market share, which flattened the growth of Michigan. As I mentioned in the article, the 1990’s tax increase on roads did briefly bring the roads up to very good shape…I think at one point 90% of the roads were in good shape or better, which is far above the 80% benchmark. Unfortunately, now it’s around 50% which is absolutely horrifying.

    • Probably has to do with taxes in Illinois. Aren’t property taxes pretty high? Ours are fairly low here in AZ (and our roads are fairly bad…). Think I recall learning that property tax on a house comparable to mine would be so high in Illinois that I couldn’t own this house (or any house) if it were in that state.

      Unfortunately, though, if we want the infrastructure — the roads, the bridges, the sewer systems, the schools, the libraries — we have to pay for it. The “let the users pay for it” approach would mean all these amenities would go away, because no single user or group of user could afford to pay for upkeep on even a short stretch of a city street, to say nothing of all those other systems.

      We get what we pay for. When we work together, we get more and better public amenities. When we’re all rugged individualists, we do without needed services and structures.

  6. The roads here in our area suck! It’s worst than that. It can also cause traffic.Once the government mends, it can takes years to finish it. It’s sad that our taxes seem like to go for nothing despite we pay it on time and in exact amount. That’s an ugly truth.

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