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.

Michigan’s problems speak to the need for a federal solution to 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.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Actually, Highway Builders, Roads Don’t Pay For Themselves

|
You’ve heard it a thousand times from the highway lobby: Roads pay for themselves through “user fees” — a.k.a. gas taxes and tolls — whereas transit is a drain on the taxpayer. They use this argument to push for new roads, instead of transit, as fiscally prudent investments. The myth of the self-financed road meets […]

It’s Time to Stop Pretending That Roads Pay for Themselves

|
If nothing else, the current round of federal transportation legislating should end the myth that highways are a uniquely self-sufficient form of infrastructure paid for by “user fees,” a.k.a. gas taxes and tolls. With all the general tax revenue that goes toward roads in America, car infrastructure has benefited from hefty subsidies for many years. […]

Drivers Cover Just 51 Percent of U.S. Road Spending

|
There’s a persistent misconception in American culture that transit is a big drain on public coffers while roads conveniently and totally pay for themselves through the magic of gas taxes. And that used to be true — at least for interstate highways, a fraction of the total road network. But that was many, many failed […]