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Posted on: February 18, 2020

Commentary: Fixing the formula for road funding won't fix the real problem

By Dennis Kolar, PE 

Managing Director 

Road Commission for Oakland County


As seen in the Feb. 18, 2020 Crain’s Detroit Business

Here we go again.

Every time we in Michigan have a serious discussion about fixing our roads, those who refuse to acknowledge that we need more money to do so inevitably argue that we simply need to change the road-funding distribution formula spelled out in Michigan Public Act 51. This discussion then always turns into an attack on Act 51, usually including the assertion that the act must be outdated, since it was first enacted in 1951.

What those making this argument forget to mention is that the act is a dynamic document that has been updated numerous times over the years and has done a good job of balancing the many and diverse road needs in our state. It has stood the test of time.

One of the ways Act 51 has kept up with the times is by recognizing the additional needs of urban areas by introducing the Urban Factor, which directs additional money to urbanized counties. Another way is through the recognition of moveable bridges and the creation of special funding just for these unique structures. These are just two of the many ways the act has been adapted over the years.

In other words, our Legislature has always done a good job of updating the act when needed to address the ever-changing transportation world. This process has occurred through careful deliberation and a recognition of the many and varying transportation funding needs facing Michigan.

Unfortunately, most recently, there has been a knee-jerk reaction to our current funding crisis. Rather than providing truly adequate funding to address our transportation needs, some have instead proposed to change the Act 51 funding-distribution formula so that population is the dominant factor.

While population is certainly an important factor (which is why it is one of the factors that Act 51 takes into account), it is far from the only factor influencing road needs. For example, focusing only on population negates the importance of the second and third largest industries in our state: agriculture and tourism.

Neither agriculture nor tourism generate large numbers of permanent residents. However, each is highly dependent on good roads, and each contributes substantially to the state coffers.

However, if we change the Act 51 road-funding distribution formulas to focus solely on population – which, frankly would benefit my county – we will likely create a very detrimental impact on both the agricultural and tourism industries.

A far better solution for our state would be to do what virtually every other state has already done: provide adequate road funding for all parts of the state, not just the highly urbanized areas. After all, we truly are one Michigan.

We in Southeast Michigan rely on the agricultural products produced in the rest of the state and we, more than any other region of the state, participate in the bountiful tourism offerings of our friends to the north and west.

Selecting population as the dominant factor in assigning road funding makes no more sense than, say, basing road funding on the number of bushels of corn or the tons of sugar beats a county produces or on the number of visitors to a county’s beaches.

Let’s stop allowing those opposed to adequate road funding from diverting our attention to silly side issues. Rather, let’s keep our gaze focused where it should be: on the real challenge, which is adequately funding our roads.

If we really want Michigan to succeed and compete, it’s time we finally catch up with most of the other states in the nation and provide every part of our state with the dollars needed to fix our damn roads.

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