Michigan's 20th century system for funding its transportation infrastructure, based largely on revenues from the state gasoline tax, is a non-starter in the 21st century.
Put simply, the system is broken and it needs to be fixed now, said Kirk T. Steudle, the veteran registered professional engineer who was named director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) in 2006.
"Our current 'centsper-gallon' revenue stream is a broken system," Steudle warned in an interview with the Detroiter. "We are seeing the beginning phase of that system failing. Now is the perfect time to see what the future system can look like--and put that system in place."
To that end, the Michigan Legislature last year created a high-level Transportation Funding Task Force to develop both short-term and long-term solutions before the problem becomes a bona fide crisis. Its preliminary recommendations are expected by the end of this year. (The task force, appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, is comprised of nine members from the private sector plus two state senators and two representatives from both major political parties.)
"The mission of the task force is to examine how we fund transportation needs for the future, recognizing that fuel taxes are not going to be good forever," Steudle explained. "It was initially created to look at the long term, but as it moved through the legislature we realized we needed to look at both short-term and long-term solutions. Right now we're more focused on the short term."
Ultimately, most of the panel's recommendations will require legislative approval, and Steudle is confident that partisan sniping can be avoided because the stakes are so high. "Lawmakers recognize that transportation funding is a major issue and, as one said, 'We are going to get only one chance to fix this, and we need to do it right.'
"The cost of doing nothing is too high. If this turns into partisan bickering and fighting, the people on the short end of the stick are those who use roads and get goods from rail and ports as well."
In other words, all of us.
Transportation funding is a complex subject, but three principal factors are responsible for the current funding dilemma:
* Changing driving habits. Due to skyrocketing gasoline prices, motorists are changing their driving habits and consuming less fuel. From a conservation point of view, this is a good thing, but it means steadily declining revenues for the...