Joint Committee Meetings on Transportation & Infrastructure Modernization Continue: Trucking, Asset Management, and Fairgrounds Transit Hub Discussed
Last week’s joint committee meetings between the House Transportation and Infrastructure, and Senate Infrastructure Modernization committees saw discussion of trucking, asset management, and a development concept for the state fairgrounds.
Last Tuesday’s meeting was rescheduled last minute for 30 minutes later than originally planned on the Senate side, which unfortunately conflicted with several members’ schedules on both sides, creating a tag-team-like panel of Representatives and Senators coming and going throughout the meeting.
Former Representative Paul Opsommer presented with Bill Gale, Vice President of Equipment Maintenance at Universal Truckload Services, on the effects of truck weight limits on roads. Gale presented the differences in federal and Michigan weight limits on trucking. At the federal level, trucks are limited to a gross vehicle weight of 80,000 lbs., however, as determined in Vehicle Code Act 300 (1949), Michigan sets its limit much higher than that, provided that the weight is spread over more axles. Gale argued that Michigan businesses rely on this higher weight allowance to keep their costs competitive, while doing more shipping in, out, and through Michigan, and that we should continue this higher weight allowance.
Either it was the lacking attendance by the committee members or Gale’s dry PowerPoint full of solid text blocks and endless numbers on weights and axles – when it came time for Q and A much of the audience was engaged in small discussion amongst themselves.
To the disappointment of the committee members, Gale responded to many of their questions with “that’s not my field of expertise”, despite beginning his presentation with a listing of his diverse experience in the trucking industry. Representative Marilyn Lane inquired about a comparison of registration costs on trucks of various axle amounts in Ohio versus Michigan. Senator Darwin Booher asked if roads were built to differing standards to accommodate the weights of trucks on main trucking routes. Senator Rebekah Warren challenged Gale’s assertion that higher weight allowances were good for Michigan’s economy, based on higher weight limits causing faster wear on Michigan roads. After a handful of claims by Gale that questions were not in his field of expertise, Senator Roger Kahn called forward MDOT Director Kirk Steudle to come forward from the audience and field questions.
Steudle was able to answer questions about the composition of road pavement mixes depending upon what the road will be used for. He also explained for Senator Warren how pavement mixes used in Michigan have improved over the years. Steudle shared a story about an experiment MDOT carried out constructing one side of I-375 in their standard highway method and mix, and the other side using a German method and mix that was much thicker and cost three-times as much. According to his story, the German-style of pavement actually cracked six months before the Michigan-style did, proving to MDOT that German paving was not as superior as was popularly believed.
Gale’s presentation was followed by two more trucking industry presentations by Mark Limback, President of Universal Am Can Ltd., and Brandon Sloan, owner of BK Sloan & Company, LLC. Both gentlemen made the case that if Governor Rick Snyder’s transportation budget recommendations were implemented, the tax increases called for would put them out of business.
Senator Kahn and Senator Booher questioned Limback and Sloan about why many truck drivers who reside in Michigan register their trucks’ plates in other states. Sloan explained that with a higher tax on trucks with more axles, drivers circumvent the system by registering in states that do not tax as high. When Senator Kahn asked Sloan why a higher weight-class truck should not pay a higher tax for its increased wear on roads, Sloan gave a snarky reply, claiming that if Michigan raises a staggered tax across increasing weight classes, trucking companies will be provoked to choose using more small trucks, rather than paying higher registrations on fewer large trucks.
When the joint committee resumed on Thursday, House Fiscal Agency Fiscal Analyst, William Hamilton, presented a condensed history of how Michigan funds its transportation infrastructure. He highlighted that 35 percent of the Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF) is federally funded, and 63 percent is from state restricted funding such as the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees. According to Hamilton, general fund dollars have historically not been used for the MTF, aside from two one-time occurrences. He also explained that an increase in fuel taxes is easier to talk about, collect, and monitor over time, relative to a registration fee increase which involves a far greater number of variables, making it more complicated to collect and accurately measure its effectiveness – in a nut shell, drivers predictably purchase gas regularly, however the frequency of car registrations is less accurately predictable. Hamilton specified, as Representative Mike McCready did in a previous meeting of this joint committee, that a gas tax increase of one cent will net the state an additional $44 million annually. In closing, it was stated that $917 million in additional funding was need to simply maintain the current state trunkline, not including bridge maintenance, and local roads covered and not covered by the federal aid system.
Several committee members expressed gratitude for Hamilton’s exceptionally detailed presentation. Senator John Pappageorge once again called for his colleagues to pass SB 6 (2013) this year, which he claimed would structurally fix the MTF. According to Pappageorge if the House had not sunset this bill last year, it would have prevented $15 million from leaking out of the MTF into the general fund.
Representative David Rutledge inquired about what the gas tax would be if it were kept consistent with yearly inflation. Representative Charles Smiley asked Hamilton about how MDOT had spread debt over long-term bonds, and when these bonds would be paid off. As Hamilton stated that the bonds were staggered, Steudle called from the audience that MDOT’s current bonds would be paid off by 2030. Representive Wayne Schmidt then called for Steudle to come forward and explain MDOT bonds and debt refinancing in greater detail.
Hamilton’s presentation was followed by Steven Warren from the Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council (MTAMC) and Kent County Road Commission, who presented on the state’s asset management processes and progress since being defined by Public Act 499 (2002). This included a review of the four-step asset management process and the PASER pavement condition rating system. Warren concluded by expressing his belief that the main cause of road deterioration at the rate it is in Michigan is the inability of road commissions and MDOT to make timely investments.
Senator Kahn brought up the asset management survey from Michigan Tech. that Senator Jack Brandenburg had earnestly clung to in last week’s joint meetings, to Mr. Warren. Warren insisted that Michigan is a leader in the practice of statewide asset management. Senator Mark Jansen, representing Kent County, expressed gratitude and excitement for Warren’s presentation of asset management. Representative Smiley asked Warren about pavement compositions and whether or not there were ways we could construct better roads. Warren’s punchline-response was that the problem at hand is not so much the original construction of roads, but rather the maintenance of them over time.
When Warren’s presentation concluded, much of the audience began to pack up and leave, as James Walker of the National Motorists Association (NMA) began his presentation expressing the NMA’s support for the Governor’s recommended gas tax increase. Walker explained that the NMA preferred the use of the gas tax increase over other funding methods, because from their perspective it is the only true user fee for the roads. He also put forth that if a fuel tax is implemented in small increments over a period of time, it will not be as noticeable to the public.
Thursday’s joint meeting concluded with Jim Casha, presenting the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition’s Michigan Energy Technology Expo (META Expo) concept. META Expo is a redevelopment concept for the State Fairgrounds that would convert part of the property into a transit hub for the new Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority. The concept would utilize the Fairgrounds’ convenient location between Woodward Avenue and Amtrak’s Wolverine rail service line. Casha did note that Senator Brandenburg had already left the committee, and he was the only one on the committee to have voted ‘no’ on PA 74 (2012), which created the state fairgrounds sale advisory committee to facilitate the sale of fairgrounds.
The committee will be meeting again this week with additional presentations regarding the Governor’s recommended transportation funding increases. There is word that one meeting will be devoted to transportation options other than the automobile.
By: Dan Sommerville, Transportation For Michigan Fellow