Will There Be Tolls for Michigan Drivers?

The debate over tolls versus a gas tax to fix roads in Michigan does not include room for more mass transit.

Lansing lawmakers are fighting over a gas tax or tolls to fix roads, but not over improving transit
Lansing lawmakers are fighting over a gas tax or tolls to fix roads, but not over improving transit

Michigan politicians are fighting over the best way to charge voters for road repairs — but neither party is offering to fund more public transit.

Three months after Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed hiking the state’s gas tax by $0.45 per gallon by 2020, the Republican-controlled House rejected the tax and passed its own budget 57-52. Now, Republican State Rep. Ann Bollin is asking the Michigan Department of Transportation to conduct a study into how tolls could be installed on state highways.

“I’ve heard for a very long time from constituents back in the district when I was working at the local level — people asked, ‘Why don’t we have toll roads in Michigan?'” she told the Detroit Free Press. “It might be a future opportunity for us, but I do think we need the deep dive into it.”

Democrats are standing behind their governor, who campaigned on a platform of fixing state roads and whose gas tax proposal would haul in more than $2 billion annually .

A gas tax would certainly raise revenue — state officials say Michigan’s road improvement needs total $2.5 billion per year from the added fees. But it wouldn’t necessarily dissuade people from using their cars less — and fees raised via gas taxes tend to decline as cars become more fuel efficient.

Tolls, on the other hand, could make motorists think twice about their commuting options, especially toll stations that charge drivers more during rush hour which could ease traffic congestion on highways.

Imposing a fee on the miles a vehicle travels, as Oregon is considering, could also raise money more equitably on drivers heavily dependent on Michigan roadways than those who have inefficient engines or use their cars for short trips.

Yet Michigan legislators have floated several shortsighted suggestions beyond a gas tax and new tolls, including:

  • Selling state bridges, highway welcome centers, and state-owned airports and airplanes
  • Moving a 6-cent sales tax on gasoline to a fuel tax
  • Stop paying for the Gordie Howe Bridge, connecting Detroit to Canada, although legislators backed off that threat.

Voters could be forgiven for asking why the additional money is necessary when the state is already spending $1.2 billion  — including $600 million taken from the state’s general fund — from a road repair package Gov. Rick Snyder signed in 2015.

Meanwhile the state is planning two highway projects in greater Detroit that cost $4 billion alone despite the city’s precipitous population decline which has yet to reverse itself.

It’s unclear how much money tolls could raise for Michigan’s coffers. Tolls on 5,932 miles of road in 35 states generated $13 billion, according to an International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association study in 2015.

But it doesn’t seem like Michigan would use that revenue to expand its bus network or install more rail in Detroit for instance that connects the downtown to Oakland and Macomb counties — not after voters in those counties rejected transit expansion in 2016.

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