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Build Michigan III Would Pave Way to More Traffic and Sprawl

Not an answer to congestion

May 25, 2000 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Would you put an addition on a house while the roof falls in and the paint peels? That's exactly the plan coming out of the governor's office for Michigan's roads. Borrow nearly $I billion to build new highways while motorists dart, weave and bang their way along Michigan's pothole-pocked roads.

The plan is called Build Michigan III. It's the latest sequel in the Engler administration's road program. And it promises a pounding for Michigan motorists and taxpayers. Gov. John Engler's previous offerings focused on modest road repair. But Build Michigan III is all about new pavement. While short on details, the proposal calls for $900 million to expand the state and local road systems.

Taxpayers would subsidize the road plan with $I00 million from the general fund. And the state Department of Transportation would borrow $800 million by issuing bonds, to be paid back with interest from the road-repair fund. In coming weeks, lawmakers will be asked to approve the general fund spending. The state Department of Transportation already has the legal authority to issue bonds. Motorists would be well served if lawmakers would closely scrutinize the whole package. Build Michigan III would:

• Limit future funds for fixing state and local roads by bonding.

• Reduce the share of money available to public transit, which is the real answer to commuter congestion in Metropolitan Detroit and cities statewide.

•Promote sprawI, more driving and, ultimately, more congestion.

First things first. Let's fix Michigan's roads and permanently maintain them in top condition. Let's restore funding for public transit, which repeatedly has been ignored by the governor's new-roads agenda. Then we can talk about targeted expansions, if needed.

Michigan already has plenty of money for fixing its roads and combating congestion. The state Department of Transportation's $3-billion budget reflects a 300-million boost from the I997 hike in the gasoline tax and other fees. In 1998, Michigan's portion of federal transportation funding jumped 61 percent compared to the previous federal allocation. And earlier this year, the state saved about $400 million in state matching funds when ill-conceived plans to re-route U.S. I31 and U.S. 23 in northern Michigan were scrapped.

State transportation planners lack vision, not money. The director of the state Department of Transportation has begun repeating the truism that, "We can't build our way out of congestion." It's time for the state to heed its words.

Three major U.S. studies in the past three years reached the same conclusion: More pavement attracts more cars and triggers more driving, and soon the congestion relief is gone. Detroiters and other urban residents have watched this happen as two-lane roads doubled to four lanes and then swelled to six lanes. More pavement is not a solution; it's an addiction.

State lawmakers have the opportunity to direct Michigan toward a sustainable transportation program. We can have world-class buses, commuter and high-speed trains, and roads as smooth as runways. We've provided the money through our property taxes and gas taxes. Now lawmakers should reject a plan that would pour nearly $I billion into new pavement while existing roads crack and heave.

A wise homeowner shores up a cracked foundation before borrowing money to add a new room. Michigan's roads require the same care. And Michigan's drivers deserve a break from bad pavement and Build Michigan III.

A version of this article was published in the Detroit News on May 25, 2000.

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