As published in the Detroit News on 9/4/19
In the ongoing debate about whether and how to fix Michigan’s “damn roads,” there is a major structural problem in government that will continue to plague our state’s roads if it is not addressed.
The structural problem I am referring to is with Public Act 51 of 1951, or what Lansing insiders call PA 51, which is the nearly 70-year-old funding mechanism that determines who gets what when it comes to road funding. This law is structurally flawed because it is generations out of date and no longer reflects nor serves our state’s modern auto infrastructure. As hybrid, electric vehicles and yet-to-be discovered modes of transport emerge, the problem will only worsen.
I believe PA 51 is a primary reason Michigan’s roads are in such bad shape, because it disproportionately disperses road funding dollars throughout the state. What do I mean by that? Consider that Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties represent nearly 40% of the passenger and commercial vehicles and motorcycles registered in our state. In addition, the tri-county area also has the largest volume of traffic, day in and day out, which arguably causes the most wear and tear on the region’s roads and bridges. Should we not give more funding to these areas with more heavily travelled roads?
Earlier this year I introduced two bills that would fix the structural PA 51 problem by establishing more local control over funding and maintaining our roads. Senate Bill 27 would require all vehicle registration fees collected by the secretary of state to go to the county in which a vehicle is registered, and SB 28 would require all motor fuel taxes that are collected to stay in the county in which the fuel was pumped. My bills provide a simple, practical solution to make sure that road money is used proportionately, so counties with more vehicles and more drivers, and therefore worse roads, get the funding they need to “fix the damn roads” without increasing fees or raising your taxes.
Unfortunately, these commonsense solutions have largely been ignored in the debate to fix our state’s roads even though many acknowledge it is a good idea. However, our Michigan laws and constitution allow for communities and residents to take matters into their own hands. Several communities across the state have already acted by approving bond proposals and millages to fund local road maintenance and construction projects, bypassing the gridlock of Lansing politics entirely. Another available option is through a citizen-led initiative. Similar to the process by which the recreational marijuana law was approved in 2018, residents could take matters into their own hands and reform PA 51 through “initiated legislation” or “citizens’ initiative.”
Regardless of how or what road funding reforms might be enacted, if they do not include the reform of PA 51, we will only be kicking the can down the pothole-ridden road. This issue has been viewed as a third rail of legislative endeavor for far too long. I strongly believe that it is the one issue that we must address, if we really want to create a plan to fix and maintain Michigan’s roads now and in the future.
I encourage lawmakers, policy wonks and average residents to broaden their thinking about how we can best address Michigan’s transportation infrastructure problems and look beyond simply soaking taxpayers for “more money,” and to look toward reforming PA 51 as the logical and long overdue first step to a better path to better roads.
State Senator Peter J. Lucido, of Shelby Township, serves the people of Michigan’s 8th Senate District and is the Senate majority whip.