Michigan Land Use Institute

Thriving Communities / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Taking Motorists for a Ride

Taking Motorists for a Ride

10% for the people

August 1, 1999 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In 1997 Gov. John Engler looked across the paved portion of Michigan's landscape and didn't like what he saw: maddened motorists on pothole-pocked roads. So the Governor called for and got from theLegislature a hike in the state gasoline tax and other fees that delivered an additional $300 million a year for road repair.

At the Governor's direction, the Michigan Department of Transportation pledged to direct the money to bring 90% of state highways to "good or fair" condition by 2007. Drivers in southeast Michigan, in particular, must have rejoiced because they travel the most punishing roads in the United States, according to a national study.

Then in 1998, more good news arrived as Michigan gained a $310 million annual boost in federal transportation funding. The stage was set for a vast improvement in the state's road network.

An analysis by the Institute, however, reveals a different set of priorities. While promoting its maintenance program, MDOT is under-reporting the cost of its new road-building plans by more than one-third. Over the next five years, the department intends to spend $700 million on new roads and another $950 million to widen existing ones. Meanwhile, it has obscured its road-repair program and is studying plans to build new highways that would cost $2 billion more.

Taken together, MDOT's shifting goals raisequestionsabout its commitment to reinvest in and better maintain its roads. Concernedcitizens say MDOT's hidden road-building agenda spurs more urban sprawl, congestion, and pollution; strands the state's poor and elderly residents; and drains resources better invested in existing roads and public transit.

"The state routinely ought to maintain its roads to a very high standard before it everconsiders major expansions," said Tom Leonard, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council in Grand Rapids. "If they cannot adequately maintain what we have now, how can we expect them to maintain the miles and miles of new pavement they're proposing?"

False Advertising
Released last February, MDOT's marquee communications tool is a guide entitled Five Year Road & Bridge Program, 1999 to 2003. The document details the agency's plans to maintain, widen, and build new roads on the state-maintained highway system, those roads with an "M-", "US-", or "I-" designation. The plan's publication and time frame coincide with the new federal transportation law, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. TEA-21 increases Michigan's federal transportation funding by 61% compared to the previous 1991 law.

MDOT's five-year plan catalogues how it will spend the federal money, along with state funds generated by the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees. The report begins by saying "only 8% of the state's budget will be invested in new road construction during this time period."

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org