Tough Questions and Constructive Conversations at the Mayors and Managers Policy Forum on Transportation Funding

Last Friday, August 2, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance (MSA) (a Trans4M Core Member) hosted an insightful and interactive Mayors and Managers Policy Forum at Wayne State University, titled A Bumpy Road: The Lansing Debate over State Transportation Funding. The event is one of many in a series of Mayors and Managers Forums. The Mayors and Managers series highlights regional, intergovernmental policy issues in the Metro Detroit region, and each individual event takes on a different theme.  The agenda for this forum, as described by Conan Smith, Executive Director of MSA, was to build an aspirational vision for transportation in the Detroit region and more importantly, find a way to fund it – a hot topic throughout the state over the last several months.  For more details of what has already happened in the legislature surrounding the transportation funding debate, see a few of our previous posts here, here and here.

The Mayors and Managers Forum featured a panel of three major stakeholders in the transportation funding debate: Kirk Steudle, Director of the  Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT); Roy Rose, Chairman of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) Finance Committee; and Paul Tait, Executive Director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG).  Each of these panelists represents a group looking to sustainably increase and reform transportation funding in Michigan.  The event was comprised of brief presentations from each panelist preceding a one hour question and answer session from the audience.  The event had about 65 people in attendance, primarily mayors and city managers from across southeast Michigan along with major players in the transportation funding debate – including many Trans4M members – all of whom came equipped with tough questions for the panelists.

group

The audience at the Mayors & Managers Policy Forum listening to welcome remarks. (photo courtesy of Hayley Roberts, Communications Director at MSA)

The morning began with remarks from Kirk Steudle, who gave a brief presentation about the dire situation of Michigan’s transportation system.  Steudle described how our dilapidated roads and crumbling bridges continue to become more difficult and expensive to repair and maintain the longer we wait to fix this funding dilemma.  The dilemma Steudle referred to is the funding mechanism that we currently use to support our transportation system (primarily a $0.19/gallon gasoline tax) that continues to supply decreasing funds due to higher efficiency vehicles and overall decreasing gasoline consumption.  Steudle finished his remarks by reinforcing the seriousness of the issue explaining that if we don’t act soon, major community impacts will be felt: “at some point soon, [we] are going to see closed bridges.”

Next up on the agenda, Roy Rose gave an overview of the achievements and goals of the newly founded RTA.  He highlighted the RTA budget, explaining that the minimal RTA funds  are the biggest obstacle to the Authority as it stands.  There is currently no long-term funding mechanism for the RTA.

Panel

Roy Rose delivers a short presentation on the RTA. Seated to his left is Richard Murphy of MSA who was the panel facilitator, Kirk Steudle and Paul Tait.

Paul Tait echoed many of the comments made by Steudle; advocating the importance of a new and sustainable funding system to maintain and improve our overall transportation system.  Tait also offered up the solution of a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) funding system, something he sees as being “the wave of the future.”  A VMT funding system collects fees or taxes based on the amount a person utilizes transportation infrastructure and is sometimes bases on other factors such as vehicle weight (read more from the experts about why a VMT funding system is an equitable and sustainable option for transportation funding in this Planetizen article).

After panelists concluded their remarks, the question and answer session began.  The Q & A session provided an opportunity for mayors, managers and others in the audience to pose questions on an array of topics; however, many questions revolved around the theme of creating a stronger multi-modal transportation system. A few highlights from the Q & A revealed important goals and priorities for our transportation system from the three panelists:

  • Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) will likely play a big role in improving efficiency in our transportation system – from utilizing ‘big data’ on commute patterns and tracking VMT – investment in transportation technology will be important to Michigan’s future.
  • Developing rail corridors could create a new mode of transportation in the state and a new backbone for economy and development. Currently rail is a major priority from the governor and is seeing investment from local, state and federal dollars; however, the biggest challenge to improving and creating new rail corridors (both passenger and freight) are funding operations costs.
  • The solution to transportation funding in Michigan may be a combination of VMT fees, sales taxes, gasoline taxes or other options.

The audience posed tough questions to the panel and constructive, informative responses and discussions resulted.  Attendees undoubtedly left the event with more knowledge of Michigan’s transportation funding needs and the importance of funding reform in improving the quality of life in our state.  All three panelists urged attendees to contact their legislators in multiple forms to support increasing state transportation funding.

Trans4M will continue to follow legislative action on transportation funding reform and will share developments on our blog.

More information on the transportation funding policy debate can be found in the MSA Idea Book page, including the full presentations given by each panelist.

Written by Liz Treutel, Trans4M Fellow

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