Midwest Will Raise Gas Taxes — And Make Everything Worse

Ohio's "Columbus Connector" highway project cost $1 billion, about as much as Governor Mike Dewine's 18 cent gas tax hike would bring in annually. Image: ODOT
Ohio's "Columbus Connector" highway project cost $1 billion, about as much as Governor Mike Dewine's 18 cent gas tax hike would bring in annually. Image: ODOT

Higher gas taxes are (likely) coming across the Midwest, framed by Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans alike as an offensive against potholes — but in reality a boondoggle that will soak taxpayers and create more of the car dependence that has devastated Midwestern cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Here’s how the saga continues in three Rust Belt states — each with slow- to no population growth, yet big appetites for highway expansion projects:


The widening and reconstruction of I-75 north of Detroit will cost $1 billion and take 14 years. Photo: Wikipedia
The widening and reconstruction of I-75 north of Detroit will cost $1 billion and take 14 years. Photo: Wikipedia

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has proposed a 45-cent gas tax hike, the steepest of the three states. It would amount to a near tripling of the state’s gas tax, and raise up to $2.5 billion a year.

Whitmer campaigned on road conditions, capturing her enthusiasm for repairs on a campaign web page titled, “Fix the Damn Roads.”

“The dire state of our highways is endangering our people and getting in the way of our economic prosperity,” she wrote.

But Michigan DOT hasn’t been sparing many expenses when it comes to highway expansion.

The state is planning two highway projects for the Detroit region alone totaling $4 billion. According to official population estimates, Southeast Michigan’s population grew only about 1 percent between 2010 and 2018. The growth that did occur was concentrated in the suburbs that these highways are designed to serve. During the same period, Wayne County — where Detroit is located, lost 3.8 percent of its population. Meanwhile, suburban Oakland County grew 4.5 percent.

The majority of road widening for the Detroit area — which transit advocate and Ph.D. student Joel Batterman estimates at about $1 billion — is concentrated in two counties: Oakland and Macomb County. These are the two counties that voted against transit expansion for the region in 2016, preventing Detroiters from accessing desperately needed service.

Batterman argues highway expansions for these areas — which are unwilling to support transit — shouldn’t be “automatic” because they “fuel sprawl” that has made the region notoriously inequitable and uncompetitive.


ODOT's $1 billion "Columbus Connector" highway project was built in nine phases. Map: ODOT
ODOT’s $1 billion “Columbus Connector” highway project was built in nine phases. Map: ODOT

In Ohio, Republican Governor Mike Dewine has proposed an 18-cent gas tax hike.

Gas tax revenues are down in Ohio. The state’s 28-cent gas tax hasn’t been raised since 2005 and has lost much of its spending power to inflation.

But Ohio also hasn’t been skimping on big highway expansion projects either. Former Governor John Kasich mainly borrowed to cover costs, rather than tightening the belt or raising taxes.

In the last few years, Ohio DOT has poured $1 billion into rebuilding the I-70/I-71 split, which walls off downtown Columbus from every neighborhood to the south. Pictured above, it was built in nine separate phases. In addition, the agency recently built a $400-million bypass for Portsmouth (population: 20,000 and holding). Thanks to expensive private financing, however, the final bill to Ohio taxpayers will be $1.2 billion.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Rich Exner recently listed 10 projects that would be scaled back of cancelled if Dewine doesn’t get his way. They are all sprawl widening projects serving the sprawl suburbs, with the exception of one urban highway project.

According to a study undertaken by civic leaders in northeast Ohio — metro Cleveland/Akron/Youngstown — added 300 highway lane miles since the 1990s.

These kinds of low-value projects not only add to the agency’s overall maintenance costs, it is also harmful to older cities, helping facilitate the continued exodus from older urban areas.

Not only has Cleveland lost more than half of its historic population, the region’s urban county — Cuyahoga — has been shedding residents at an alarming rate. Some of those folks move to other metro areas — notably Columbus. But by far the biggest gainers at the surrounding exurban counties.

Akron’s regional planning agency — AMATs — resolved in 2015 [PDF] to halt new highway construction and a shift to a focus on maintenance and alternatives to driving — like sidewalks and transit. The agency wrote at the time:

While our region could always use more federal and state funding, what we need even more is a new federal and statewide vision for transportation – one that prioritizes fixing the roads and bridges that we already have, and creating viable alternatives to driving.

In many ways, we are still stuck in 1956 – both the federal and statewide transportation programs remain primarily the road-building programs that they were under President Eisenhower.

In Ohio, the state constitution technically forbids spending any gas tax money on sidewalks or transit. But Akshai Singh of the Amalgamated Transit Union says the language of the law could be interpreted to allow transit as a “highway purpose.” (Colorado lawmakers recently changed the way they interpret their constitutional language on this to be more expansive.)

Singh and others have been fighting to have state support for transit increased as part of the gas tax hike. Ohio provides only about 61 cents per capita in support for transit statewide, among the worst in the country, despite having ridership that is in the top half of states.

So far the House Finance committee has committed to upping state support for transit statewide from $33 million to $100 million. But that would not be general fund revenues, only additional funding provided by the federal government “flexed” to transit from road projects. An Ohio Department of Transportation study [PDF] conducted just three years ago, estimated that Ohio’s transit systems have $3.1 billion in unfunded capital needs over the next decade.


Wisconsin's "Zoo Interchange" was originally projected to cost an astounding $1.7 billion. Photo: ##http://wuwm.com/post/zoo-interchange-reconstruction-triggers-more-closures-some-openings##WISDOT via WUWM##
Wisconsin’s “Zoo Interchange” was originally projected to cost an astounding $1.7 billion. Photo: WISDOT via WUWM

In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, has teased a gas tax increase as well.

Wisconsin DOT has been complaining about a lack of funding for years. But Scott Walker was opposed to any tax increases on principle.

Now, Wisconsin has potholes — for sure. About 42 percent of the states roads are in poor to mediocre condition, a recent report found.

Still, Wisconsin DOT hasn’t exactly been frugal. The agency built not one, but two, interchanges — The Zoo Interchange and the Marquette Interchange — in slow-growing metro Milwaukee that approached or surpassed a $1-billion price tag. In one of those cases, highway officials joked that the interchange was so large, “it could create its own weather,” Politico’s Michael Grunwald wrote in an epic article in which he held up the project as a paragon of highway waste.

Those interchanges were part of a larger plan that called for $7 billion in highway projects in the greater Milwaukee area.

This is — keep in mind — another slow-growth region, where segregated suburbs have gobbled up more than their share of recent population. The city of Milwaukee’s population is virtually unchanged since 1990. The population in nearby Waukesha County, meanwhile, has nearly doubled since the 1970s.

Fortunately, Evers is the only Midwest governor who seems to be marginally cognizant of the problem, telling the Wisconsin State Journal last month that he wants to spend the money on local roads, not “big highway projects.”

36 thoughts on Midwest Will Raise Gas Taxes — And Make Everything Worse

  1. “three Rust Belt states — each with slow- to no population”

    For comparison purposes, California population growth is in the 0.76% range.

  2. Except long term, as California population has doubled since 1970, when these midwest roads were already built. Midwest cities have greatly shrunk since then (including their suburbs).

  3. If congestion is an issue, why not just use congestion pricing? The overall cost to taxpayers, including those paying the tolls, would probably end up being way less than adding lanes to the highways. It would also probably be more effective in reducing (or holding steady) the number of hours lost to commuting. It would also encourage employers to let more folks work from home some, which would take cars off the road altogether. And those additional highway lanes would just become another piece of infrastructure that would be expensive to maintain.

  4. City of Milwaukee has grown since 1999. The Walker-era highway projects were uniformly boondoggles.

  5. Yes, but the slow to no growth is recent in the midwest. Growth has been steady in CA for decades, so it changes the priorities of where new highways ought to be focused.

  6. This is fascinating. Articles and contributors in streetsblog frequently complain that drivers don’t pay their fair share for road expenses. When governments then propose to make that relationship better, articles and contributors still complain.

    The NMA has long supported proper user fees for the roads – it is what is fair.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  7. I think they’re mostly just lamenting that there is unnecessary expansion of road liabilities rather than trying to create Strong Towns that allow more community types, including denser ones, and more transit.

  8. Make the automobile and petroleum industries pay for their limited access freeways. States should maintain transit and local roads.

  9. A proper roads strategy would focus on maintenance and rebuilding over expansion. It would also include processes to prune back roadways that are too big and over-designed, especially in areas with slow or no population growth.

    Such roadways are a waste of resources; I’d rather have a two lane road in good condition than an underused four-lane road that is crumbling, unless the traffic levels truly justify that additional width.

    But instead, the system favors expansion at all costs, which is ruinous to the budget of every city and town in America. Planners and engineers are complicit, but mostly this is a political problem.

  10. I assume that the Midwest is trying to remain relevant as population growth and migration heads south and west.

  11. ‘Ten percent every decade’? Not exactly cherry picking. I’d call it more ‘Orwellian’.

    How about ‘only one percent a year’ – basically stagnant.

    ‘The growth is exploding! 100% every century!!’

  12. 20 years ago – 1999 – was when Milwaukee’s population bottomed out at 572K. Since 1999, Milwaukee has ADDED 22K residents.

    While Detroit has lost 292K, Cleveland lost 115K. Chicago has lost 83K residents, Buffalo has lost 37K. Pittsburgh has lost 34K. St Louis has lost 25K.

    Milwaukee also hasn’t expanded it’s borders since the 1954, so it’s been 100% infill. It’s certainly not high growth, but no other hard core, rust belt city is growing.

  13. There’s no congestion problem in Milwaukee. As far as I see it, Milwaukee is a completely tangential player in this whole thing.

    Really, it’s that I-41 corridor that runs about 150 miles from the Illinois border, around Milwaukee, and north to Green Bay is one of the most highly industrialized corridors in North America. It’s lined with manufacturers, distributors, etc. of all kinds. There’s just a huge stakeholder group that sees it as economically necessary that their semis can rip through 70 MPH all the times. This highway has been built with enough capacity that when the state replaces overpasses, major interchanges, etc. traffic doesn’t slow down below ~60 MPH.

  14. I believe ’99 was an estimate and it was corrected in the official census of 2000 where it landed at exactly the same number (595k) it is today. It’s kind of splitting hairs but to use population as a justification of spending billions of new lane construction for a stagnant city of half a million is weak.

  15. Jesu! that sounds like a corrupt boondoggle. At least in Ohio metros like Cincinnati and Columbus have growing populations and some amount of congestion on their major highways.

  16. It’s “cherry picking” when Streetblog doesn’t comprehensively look at facts; it’s Orwellian if they invoke DoubleSpeak.

    Nonetheless, Columbus is outpacing the US growth rate. The US annual growth rate in 2018 was 0.62%.

  17. Well, the most recent population numbers are also ACS estimates so it is apples-to-apples, but agreed that it’s splitting hairs. I expect to see a 12-22K positive re-adjustment in 2020 based on the increase in residential units, similar to the positive re-adjustments we saw in 2000 & 2010. For some reason, ACS is undercounting the city.

    But anyway, I agree that these highway projects have been complete boondoggles. All of the population growth acceleration is at the core of the metro. Over the last 20 years, the growth on the periphery of the metro has slowed to the point that it’s now flat or declining. While at the same time, the city has gone from shedding 100K residents per decade through 80s (almost all out of the inner neighborhoods) to where there’s now rapid growth in the core (offset by some declines in the most suburban quadrants of the city). If we actually look at demographics of the metro and planned for the future transportation needs of the area, we’d be investing in core & planning for widespread declines outside of about 7-10 mile radius where there’s high levels of stagnation & aging populations.

  18. It’s amazing how well Milwaukee has been doing despite trends in peer cities and the complete takeover of government from rural/suburban interests. The lost opportunities are staggering, nonetheless.

    But, I guess you have to keep the eyes on the prize long-term. After fighting for a decade to make the state ‘business friendly’ we are now receiving tens of thousands of high paying manufacturing jobs in the greenfields of Racine! (Cough, cough)

  19. It goes without saying, the City obviously has a lot that it struggles with. Transitioning from 55% of the City’s workforce being in manufacturing in 1980 to only 15% in 2010 has been a total beating, with a lot of middle class households getting sucked under. And – IMO – the State & Federal government haven’t been particularly helpful either. They don’t even help clean up the brownfields… but things have mostly stabilized in the last decade without their help anyways.

    Regarding why MKE has fared a little better: the City stopped a couple highways from getting built in 1970s which slowed the bleeding. Then in the 80s & 90s, the mayor was dyed-in-the-wool urbanist who laid the groundwork for a new comprehensive plan & zoning that favors a traditional urban form over low grade strip malls, tore down a downtown highway, etc. Basically, the City got back to basics, while peers continue(d) to shoot themselves in the foot.

    And the city has been pretty careful with the public purse. Despite the tough problems, the pensions are funded, the debt has been under control. The schools are old but maintained. There’s been a small number of targeted investments to push along redevelopment in certain corridors & help transition the City to a more modern economy – but only about $1B over the last 40 years.

  20. I don’t know if it’s corrupt so much as it’s irrational exuberance. the state does produce a lot perishable goods – a huge portion of whole country’s deli counter & dairy section is basically produced out of suburban Milwaukee. that whole “rushing the milk to market” really appeals to folksy sensibilities.

    But basically, WI (& IL) have spent mind boggling amounts to make sure a truck can pretty much always do 70MPH cruise control all the way to Chicago O’Hare – probably the air, rail, & over-the-top shipping capital of world.

  21. Streetsblog would not complain about higher motorist fees unless those fees equate into more infrastructure.

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  23. Population growth is heading even farther away from the Northeast, which is home to the highest concentration of slow-growth or no-growth states. Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania are slow-growth, but the only true no-growth state in the Midwest is Illinois, which will almost certainly lose electoral college seats after the 2020 Census–much like a few of the Northeastern states.

  24. But the solution to accommodating new residents in Columbus is added density and better transit, not expanding highways.

  25. Based on what? There’s actually lots of dense development being added to city neighborhoods. And no one has asked Columbians if they’d like to build a light rail system as far as I know?

  26. An article about nothing that’s clutching straws to prove, all roads bad, transit good. Most of the projects you cite aren’t adding miles of sprawl. They are updating bottlenecks that cause additional pollution negatively affecting all citizens, improving safety & efficiency for the uhh.um…21st century American life that is consumerism (for better or worse). 50% of traffic using the evil highways is FOOD, CONSTRUCTION MATERIAL FOR ROOFS OVER PEOPLE’S HEAD, CLOTHING, FURNTURE, YOUR YOGA MAT,. etc. AMAZON uses them to bring you your pakcages. I agree Sprawl must be reigned in, but improving interchanges is not adding to sprawl. I support transit also, BUT AMAZON & TYSON CHICKEN, & CASPER can’t transport their products on the light rail with commuters!

  27. While the majority of the I-70/I-71 does focus on the highways, it’s worth noting that a big part of it is quality-of-life improvements to repairing the highway scars that cut apart urban neighborhoods 60-70 years ago. Two of the completed re-built street bridges over 71 turned them from barebones single-sided-sidewalked on/off-ramps with chainlink fence into pedestrian connectors with greenscaping, park/event space, public art and noise reduction that allows pedestrians to carry on a conversation while crossing over the highway.

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