Michigan vote tests pothole angst vs. will to raise taxes

AP News
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Posted: Apr 25, 2015 12:25 PM
Michigan vote tests pothole angst vs. will to raise taxes

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Drivers in the state that put the world on wheels are flat-out embarrassed by the state of their roads. Some are even scared.

Mary Jo Walentovic was driving on a Detroit-area interstate in February when a car kicked up a large chunk of road that smashed through her van's windshield, destroying the rearview mirror and an armrest. If it'd struck inches either way, the 50-year-old church ministries coordinator is convinced that she, her teenage daughter and other motorists would be dead.

Fed up, she plans to vote for a 1-cent sales tax increase on Michigan's May 5 ballot that would put an additional $1.2 billion a year into fixing deteriorating roads and bridges in the auto-centric state.

"It's the least of the evils," Walentovic said.

Other states have asked voters in the past year whether to raise taxes or shift revenue to pay for road needs no longer fully covered by fuel taxes. The problem is particularly acute in Michigan, which spends less on highway infrastructure, per capita, than any other state except Georgia and is a major trucking route to and from Canada, the U.S.'s largest trade partner.

The business lobby complains that key commercial corridors, such as Interstates 94 and 69, are a patchwork of cracks that only will become more expensive to maintain with time.

Roughly one-fourth of states increased transportation taxes or fees in the past two years. But results were mixed in states where voters had a say.

Missouri defeated a three-quarters cent sales tax for transportation while Massachusetts repealed a provision automatically tying future increases in the gasoline tax to inflation. Texas voters approved using half the funds flowing annually into the rainy day fund for roads.

Michigan's measure may have a harder time passing because it wouldn't just increase road funding. It would also raise an estimated $600 million more per year for education, local governments, public transit and other services as part of a legislative compromise.

"It's got this other agenda stuff to it that really isn't about fixing roads," said Jerry Carpenter, who owns a car repair shop a half-mile from the Capitol. "Yeah, everyone's tired of bad roads. But are they willing to give up more money?"

Drivers can spend hundreds of dollars a year on wheel alignments and suspension fixes because of streets on which he's been hesitant to ride his motorcycle for fear of being thrown off.

Crummy roads are good business for Carpenter, but even he said "we're all going have to give up something to get the infrastructure built back up." He said he likely will vote no, though, until a better option is presented.

Paul Mitchell, a conservative Saginaw-area businessman and former congressional candidate who leads a group opposing the measure, said "voters deserve better than a $2 billion tax hit, of which only 60 percent goes to transportation."

The measure's backers span the political spectrum and include Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, legislative leaders, local chambers of commerce, businesses and labor unions. They warn that the vote is a one-shot deal with no viable legislative Plan B in sight.

More than half of Michigan's major roads will be in poor condition within a decade if nothing's done, up from 38 percent in 2014 and 23 percent in 2006, according to The Road Information Program, a Washington-based research group sponsored by road interests.

There's scarce data showing how the roads stack up against other states' infrastructure, partly because pavement conditions are measured differently around the country. But drivers here are jealous when they visit nearby Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin — which spend between $125 and $230 more per person on their highways.

"It's embarrassing to have people visit Michigan," said Carol Blotter, a retired consultant in the computer software industry who lives in Chelsea, outside Ann Arbor. "People comment, 'Your roads are really bad.'"

Like Snyder and the influential Michigan Chamber of Commerce — which is neutral on the measure — she would have preferred straightforward gas and diesel tax increases he unsuccessfully pushed in the Legislature. She worries about the sales tax hike disproportionally hitting lower-income people but also likes that schools would get more funding.

"If you wait for the perfect bill, you'll wait forever," said Blotter, who's leaning toward backing the proposal.

Construction contractors and companies have poured millions into the sales tax campaign and have greatly outspent conservative activist groups. The advertising blitz is needed because voters last OK'd a net tax hike in a statewide vote 55 years ago.

An EPIC-MRA survey conducted a month ago showed just 25 percent of 600 likely voters in support and 66 percent against, with 10 percent undecided.

While campaigning around the state, Snyder holds up plywood used underneath some highway overpasses to protect vehicles from falling concrete. He emphasizes that putting the matter to voters was the only way to address a critique of how Michigan pays for roads.

The state has among the country's highest taxes at the pump yet spends less because the sales tax applied to fuel mostly goes to education and municipalities. Under Proposal 1, the sales tax would be removed from fuel and all taxes at the pump would go to transportation.

"We don't like our roads. Let's do something about it. This is our big opportunity," Snyder said.

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