Study: Michigan Roads Not as Bad as Politicians Say, But User Fees Key to Making Repairs


Michigan’s state roads are not as bad as some politicians are claiming they are. That's according to a study released this month by the Michigan-based Mackinac Center.

"Seventy-five percent of state roads, roads with an I, US, or M designation are in fair or good condition," the study’s author, Chris Douglas, told "However, the Michigan Department of Transportation projects that by 2024, only one-third of these roads will be in fair or good condition. The Michigan Department of Transportation estimates that an additional $1.13 billion is needed per year to prevent this from happening."

Douglas is chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Michigan-Flint and a member of the Mackinac Center’s Board of Scholars.

These so-called trunkline roads, which include all state highways in Michigan, carry 75 percent of truck and commercial traffic in the state, according to the study. They also carry more than half of the state’s passenger traffic. Ninety-five percent of trunkline bridges are also rated in good or fair condition, with 5 percent rated in poor condition.

The study notes that there is a bigger problem with local roads. Half of those roads, the study finds, are in poor condition. However, 90 percent of village and city bridges are in good or fair condition, with 10 percent in poor condition.

"I estimate that $3 billion per year is needed to address all of the roads in poor condition," Douglas said.

Repairing Michigan’s roads has become a topic of discussion in the state’s governor’s race between Republican candidate Bill Schuette and Democratic candidate Gretchen Whitmer.

Whitmer proposed spending $3 billion annually to fix the roads that need work, with $2 billion coming from the state and $1 billion coming from the federal government. Schuette called for an audit of the Michigan Department of Transportation, ensuring the state is receiving the proper funds from the federal government, using savings from the prevailing wage law and re-prioritizing road funding.

Douglas, however, provided a more specific plan to address the question of road funding. Ideally, he said, those who are using the roads would front the bulk of the costs through user fees, such as a gasoline tax or a miles-traveled tax.

"I estimate that commercial trucks pay far less in diesel taxes than the damage they cause to the roads," Douglas said. "Bringing the diesel tax in line with this would be a good step. A vehicles miles traveled tax would assess a fee per mile driven. It would basically be like a toll road but without toll plazas and could be used for all roads, not just limited access highways."

Douglas called for an overhaul of the current taxing and funding structure and said the fuel tax should be rerouted to pay for road repairs instead of economic development and mass transportation. This way, people could be more directly paying for the services they use.

"Right now, cities in Michigan with populations over 25,000 people get a road funding allocation based on the number of state roads within the city limits, even though the Michigan Department of Transportation, not the cities, are responsible for maintaining these roads," Douglas said. "These road funding dollars would be more efficiently utilized for state-wide road repairs."

Among his other recommendations:

  • Remove special exemptions for vehicle registration fees
  • Prioritize the trunkline system at the state level
  • Base vehicle registration fees on weight
  • Eliminate the ineffective Transportation Economic Development Fund and Comprehensive Transportation Fund
  • Help local governments pursue local road millages
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