Editorial: Bad roads tax Michigan motorists
Failing to properly fund highway and bridge work adds an average $536 a year in vehicle repairs, fuel costs

Michigan's poor quality roads are going to cost drivers either way, so why not fix them? (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News) In a classic example of "pay me now or pay me later," Michigan motorists now know the scale of the hidden tax being levied on them by the failure of the state to repair its crumbling roads and bridges. The tab: an average $536 a year for each vehicle owner.

That figure comes from a study by the transportation group TRIP.

The TRIP report concludes that Michigan's 7 million vehicles are dinged a total of $2.3 billion annually for repairs, increased fuel consumption, tire wear and tear and lowered values of their cars and trucks that could be avoided by fixing the roads.

That's nearly twice as much as Gov. Rick Snyder is asking the Legislature to devote to highways and bridge improvements. Snyder's seeking $1.2 billion a year from either increased gasoline or sales taxes or higher vehicle registration fees. That's a bargain, considering the damage and aggravation Michigan's pothole-infested roads cause.

And while motorists most acutely notice the road surface, Michigan bridges are in even more dire and dangerous shape. State Transportation Director Kirk Steudle says the state has 254 structurally deficient bridges, with two-thirds of them in Southeast Michigan. The cost of replacing all of them: $838 million. Those funds aren't simply going to materialize. The people who use the roads and bridges must pay to keep them maintained.

Certainly, the state could use its existing road funding more effectively. We have long argued for a revamping of the distribution formula to ensure that the most money goes to the regions with the most traffic. Michigan could also roll back the prevailing wage law on local road projects to stretch repair dollars further.

But those reforms won't nearly deliver enough funds to put the bridges and highways into good repair and keep them that way.

Of the options available for raising the needed money, the higher gasoline or sales tax is perhaps the most sensible in that it spreads the cost more thinly, unlike hiking the vehicle registration fee, which would impose a heavy burden all at once.

But it's less important how the money is raised than that it is raised. Michigan has been neglecting its obligation to its infrastructure for decades, and now motorists are paying the price. And the state's economic revival depends on reliable roads and bridges.

The recent spate of arctic temperatures has wreaked havoc on road surfaces. Potholes are slowing traffic and destroying tires and suspensions. And the ruts make the highways more dangerous.

The conventional wisdom in Lansing is that getting additional taxes or fees to fund roads is impossible in an election year. But if the elected leaders allow these roads to get much worse, they may face a very angry electorate in November.

Motorists are already paying for the bad roads in the form of vehicle repair costs and lost fuel efficiency. It is far more responsible for them to put that money into the roads directly rather into tire and bump shops and gasoline pumps.