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Detroit Free Press: Car eating potholes ahead

Thursday, February 21, 2008   (0 Comments)
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Detroit Free Press 

Car eating potholes ahead 


Pothole season is upon us, and it's going to be a rough one. Don't expect any quick fixes, though. There's not enough money for roads, and finding more won't be easy. Here are some suggestions to ease the bumpy ride. 


Cut federal roadblocks: Congressional earmarks waste dollars, skew priorities 


Here's another reason to hate those earmarks that Congress does to fund pet local projects. They screw up road priorities in Michigan, and some of the money just plain goes to waste. 


Mostly because of a lack of coordination on the Washington end, the Michigan Department of Transportation estimates $63 million worth of congressional earmarks will be left unspent at the end of the current, five-year federal highway bill. That money, which will lapse back to the feds, could have bought a lot of road improvements. 


Once upon a time, most congressional earmarks in federal transportation bills involved adding extra money to a state's share of funds from federal gas taxes. Now, most often, the earmarks represent one member's idea of how to best spend the federal road money already allotted to the state in the member's district. Sometimes that coincides with regional or state priorities, sometimes not. 


Sometimes the projects aren't even ready to be done. Or a community decides it doesn't have enough match money for its share. Or the earmark doesn't cover the federal end of the project, and there's nowhere else to get more money. Then the money from Washington is just gone. It cannot be reassigned. 


Even in the best of circumstances, local communities sometimes have to sacrifice regular maintenance spending to come up with their match money for the improvement project. Then other roads fall apart even faster. 


And since the money arrives in chunks year-by-year, it may mean that rafts of projects get done in the last year of the cycle, rather than having them spread out evenly. That has to affect the prices of jobs, if demand for road construction services peaks in the last year of a federal appropriation law. (One of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's economic programs takes on this problem by advancing communities money, so projects can get under way sooner.) 


In the current five-year federal transportation bill (for the years 2005-09), earmarks for Michigan projects totaled $526.9 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. If MDOT's estimate for lost earmarks holds true, that means 12% of the earmarked money will disappear. 


Michigan's congressional delegation, as it turns out, is relatively restrained compared to other states: The earmarks they put in the current bill work out to $53 per Michigander, compared to a national average of $86. But add in the fact that Michigan remains a donor state, getting back only 91-92 cents of every dollar that state drivers send to Washington, and it becomes obvious that any distortion in federal financing has a big impact on money available for road maintenance here. 


Voters should tell their congressional representatives to stop earmarks unless they bring real extra dollars to the state, not just campaign claims about "bringing home the bacon." The state Department of Transportation, along with regional agencies such as the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, should set the priorities, not people who are mainly concerned with one congressional district. 


It is simply indefensible to waste $63 million in road money like this when teeth-rattling potholes confront every driver in Michigan. 

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