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The truth behind Michigan's road problems

As you probably know, the latest effort to reach a compromise to fix Michigan’s roads collapsed this week, as have all the others. 

Yesterday I suggested one possible solution: Forget talking about taxes. Instead, raise the price of gasoline 30 cents a gallon and call that “user fee,” and use the money to fix the roads.

Yesterday, I had a very interesting phone call from one of the most knowledgeable people in state government, who told me he was extremely glad I brought up the idea of user fees, and reminded me, “that is how we decided as a country, some 70 years ago, that transportation infrastructure should be funded.”

And he noted that Harry Truman, one of our most venerated presidents, got his start as a local official building roads in Missouri. “He instinctively understood the basics of civilization – build your foundation first,” the state official said. The man who called me has a different perspective on the current mess in Lansing. He has little use for the politicians and legislators, and not much for the news media.

He told me he is frustrated by “the weak reporting in what used to be our state’s best newspapers. The writers report the wacko theories of ill-informed lawmakers, who are only in office because of term limits, and their stories lend credence to the nonsense.”

What’s worse is that these ill-informed politicians attack the state workers who actually build the roads – and almost equally ill-informed reporters from an echo chamber by repeating their charges. My source, who has worked for the Michigan Department of Transportation, told me:

“I’ve come to know some incredibly passionate planners and engineers, almost all of whom grew up in Michigan, who sincerely care about public service. They went to school to learn skills to give back by rebuilding the state’s infrastructure.

“Instead, they are starved for the resources to do it right, then maligned as incompetents because the roads are falling apart.”

Again, incomplete reporting by a dwindling corps of news reporters helps add to misperceptions. One is the frequent claim that any money from fuel taxes goes straight to Lansing where bureaucrats spend it any way they want.

“That’s not true,” he said; the law specifies that most new fuel tax money wouldn’t even go to the state. “The state would get 39 percent; the counties get 39 percent and the local communities, 22 percent.” My source said he is more and more frustrated. He had a long and successful career in another field before entering government service.

But he discovered, to his dismay, that not only were the politicians too-often wrongheaded, the voters themselves are less informed and involved than they once were. This may be in part because the number who read newspapers or consume serious news is a small fraction of what it was, say, 30 years ago.

And that leaves them prey to demagogues and nutty theories. This, he fears, has disturbing consequences beyond our crumbling roads. He fears that unless we recapture our trust in government workers, whole generations may avoid public service because it is underpaid and has been so maligned.

Which for our civilization might be the biggest disaster of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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