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Guber­na­torial can­didate Gretchen Whitmer vowed to “fix the damn roads” during her 2018 cam­paign, and she promised to do so without raising taxes, calling a 20 cent gas tax increase “ridiculous” and “non­sense.”

Five months later, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pro­posed a 45 cents-per-gallon increase to the Michigan gas tax in the latest attempt to repair the state’s crum­bling roads. This increase would place Michigan’s gas tax at 71.3 cents-per-gallon — the highest in the U.S. (a number that doesn’t even include the 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax) and is esti­mated to raise $2 billion annually for Michigan roads.

The Michigan leg­is­lature should reject this hike in favor of better policy solu­tions.

Whitmer’s latest pro­posal would increase the state gas tax 15 cents-per-gallon every six months until the 45 cent mark is reached. To offset this increase, Whitmer pro­posed dou­bling the earned income tax credit, but most voters aren’t con­vinced. This tax increase is more than just unpopular with con­stituents: It fails to address the real problems asso­ciated with Michigan roadways.  
While having four seasons is typ­i­cally con­sidered a luxury, the accom­pa­nying freeze-thaw cycle com­bined with local soil con­di­tions is dis­as­trous for Michigan roads. They take an addi­tional pounding year round from trucks that weigh as much as 164,000 pounds, the highest limit in the nation according to the Detroit Free Press.

Most res­i­dents under­stand the decay of the roads, but Uni­versity of Michigan econ­omist Chris Douglas sug­gests the problem is not as bad as it seems. In a recent report pub­lished by the Mackinac Policy Center, Douglas stated that 75 percent of trun­kline roads —those that begin with I, US, or M — are in either good or fair con­dition. These roads carry an esti­mated 53 percent of Michigan’s pas­senger traffic and 75 percent of truck traffic. The real problem, he sug­gests, lies in county and local roads, in which 34 and 46 percent are in poor con­dition respec­tively.

As Douglas explains in his report, public roads present a public goods problem due to their non-excludable nature. In other words, you can’t stop non-paying people from using the roads. Douglas sug­gests that those who use the roads the most should pay the most.

But wait a minute! Isn’t that exactly what Whitmer’s gas tax increase would do? It’s true: under a system of high gas taxes, those who drive the most pay the most. In Michigan, however, trucks inflict far more damage to roads than the average pas­senger vehicle and thus, an increase in the gas tax would place burden on the wrong group. According to the Michigan Department of Trans­portation, the average pas­senger vehicle cur­rently does less than 1 cent of damage per mile driven, while paying 3 cents per mile driven in gas taxes and reg­is­tration fees. The average truck, however, does any­where from 20 to 60 cents of damage per mile driven while only paying 11 cents-per-mile in fuel taxes and reg­is­tration fees.

In his report, Douglas pro­poses a list of policy changes. While not all of them are excellent, they are much preferable to Whitmer’s plan. Three of these policies, in par­ticular, would be much more effective at raising revenue and inter­nal­izing the costs of public roads than Whitmer’s pro­posed gas tax.

Douglas’s first pro­posal is to use the sales taxes from fuel pur­chases to fund road con­struction. Cur­rently, 72.8 percent of the revenue from Michigan’s 6 percent sales tax goes towards public edu­cation, according to the State of Michigan House Fiscal Agency. While such a pro­posal would redirect some funds away from edu­cation, public school dis­tricts have many other sources of funding that can be uti­lized. This policy is admit­tedly much easier said than done. Diverting funding from edu­cation is never polit­i­cally popular, but large problems require sac­ri­ficial solu­tions.  
The second of Douglas’s pro­posals that state leg­is­lature should adopt the expansion of the weight classes for vehicle reg­is­tration, par­tic­u­larly for trucks, and the low­ering of the maximum weight allowed on Michigan roadways. The Michigan Department of Trans­portation (MDOT) jus­tifies their current standard by saying a double tractor semi-truck does less road damage than two single tractor semi-trucks. Low­ering the max weight would add an esti­mated 15,000 trucks to Michigan roadways according to MDOT. While there would surely be a tradeoff in terms of increased shipping costs, traffic, and road damage, the increase in revenue from 15,000 more vehicle reg­is­tra­tions a year, as well increase in revenue from fuel taxes, would more than justify the policy change. This method of raising revenue is more eco­nom­i­cally effi­cient as it targets the trucks that do the most damage to Michigan roads rather than the already heavily-bur­dened pas­senger car driver.

Finally, Michigan should follow the lead of Oregon and pilot a Vehicle Miles Driven Program which is esti­mated to add $340 million in revenue over the next ten years according to the Oregon Department of Trans­portation. Such a program would use either GPS or odometer tracking to charge pas­senger vehicles and trucks alike for their use of Michigan roads.

All three of these policy pro­posals are superior to Whitmer’s pro­posed gas tax increase. These pro­posals would suc­cess­fully inter­nalize many of the costs asso­ciated with main­taining public roads without over­bur­dening the average driver that does little damage. Like any policy, these changes would involve trade-offs espe­cially in the form of higher shipping costs that would be trans­ferred, in part, to con­sumer goods. While this is not ideal, it is a superior alter­native to the current state of affairs or the solution pro­posed by the governor’s office.

Michigan roads will always be costly to maintain, but as the auto capital of the world, we must pursue cre­ative solu­tions to keep the state moving forward.