In the 94th Michigan Legislature, 2007-2008
These issues could change the driving environment for Michigan motorists in the next two years. Michigan legislators introduce about one bill having to do with cars and driving for every day they're in session. These are your roads, your car, your money, and your rights they're talking about. Check the NMA Michigan Chapter web site for bi-weekly updates, and let your legislature know what you want done.
Local Control of Speed Limits
Michigan's Public Act 85 of 2006 is the nation's best speed-limit law, requiring most limits to be scientifically set. This law (MCL 257.627 & 628) took effect on November 9, 2006, invalidating thousands of obsolete and meaningless speed limits, mostly in cities. Probably the biggest motorist issue in 2007-08 will be defending this law from legislators who want to restore speed-limit powers to city councils, and return speed-trap revenues to city budgets.
In the last days of the 2006 session, a bill was passed to restore pre-2006 limits on unpaved roads. This was a response to Oakland County homeowners on gravel roads that had been posted (illegally) at 25 m.p.h., and from which the signs were removed in 2006 in compliance with the new law. Governor Granholm vetoed that bill, but it was reintroduced in 2007 as HB 4145 and SB 117. The Michigan State Police have explained how artificially-low speed limits are counterproductive to traffic safety and law enforcement, but these bills could still find friends in either house.
Some cities may even want authority over speed limits on state highways within their boundaries. Under this scheme, Woodward Avenue could have eleven speed limits between Pontiac and Detroit, all of them wrong. One such bill was introduced in 2005, and it's likely to resurface in the 2007-08 legislature. Townships may join the crusade, wanting regulatory authority over county roads lined with suburban houses.
None of this should happen. Instead, the remaining loopholes in Michigan's speed law should be closed, so that all speed limits require a recent study of the actual traffic speed. Only in extraordinary cases should speed limits be below the 85th per-centile of free-flowing traffic.
The 2006 reform makes it legal to restore the pre-1974 speed limits on rural 2-lane highways, so state highways should be returned to 65 mph or other limits as dictated by conditions.
Lawless cities. Most cities haven't brought their posted prima facie limits into compliance with 2006's Public Act 85. Quite a few are still actively enforcing old, invalid limits, and at least one-East Lansing-is making a show of legislating limits and filing traffic control orders for them as if they were absolute limits supported by a traffic and engineering study. Some courts uphold these illegal limits, but the issue has yet to be tested in most courts. NMA members can receive information on how their attorneys can fight speeding tickets under invalid limits and so help bring more Michigan cities into compliance with the new speed law.
Photo Radar and Red-light Cameras
An Automated Pipeline to Drivers' Wallets Michigan law requires that traffic tickets be issued by "a police officer who witnesses a person violating" the Motor Vehicle Code [MCL 257.742(1)]. This outlaws cameras that issue automated tickets. But at least eight traf-fic-camera firms operate in the United States, and their salesmen are paying calls (and campaign con-tributions) in Michigan. Some cities are eager to install automated ticket machines, which have been described as "ATM machines for local governments."
Photo-radar bills were introduced in each Michigan legislative session between 1999 and 2006. None were ever been taken up, but each was more sophisticated than the last, as camera suppliers learn to make their scheme more at-tractive to politi-cians. Camera salesmen won't stop trying, so we can expect a photo-radar bill in the 2007 legislative session.
Early in 2007 Attorney General Cox reminded the City of Southgate that it's illegal in Michigan to install ticket-issuing machines. The City had wanted to install red-light cameras at its two busiest intersections. Rep. Farrah says she's studying the idea of amending Michigan law to permit automated citations.
Photo-radar suppliers typically get a cut of every automated traffic fine, with plenty left over for local governments. Insurers love traffic cameras because tickets mean huge increases in insurance premiums. There's a ton of money at stake, all of it ours. Whether we get to keep it depends on whether state legislators hear from motorists, or from camera vendors.
Cameras Not the Solution The solution to intersection crashes is competent engineering. In a pro-gram conducted by Wayne State University, the City of Detroit, AAA and MDOT, Michigan led the nation in showing how urban intersections can be made safer by-
Correct lane striping
Correct signal timing, based on true traffic approach speed, not posted limits.
Larger signal heads and backing plates.
Intersections can benefit from removal of distracting background clutter, closure of driveways, clear-ing of sight lines, signal synchronization, enlarged capacity, or replacement with modern round-abouts. Cities should remedy unsafe intersections, not use camera enforcement to turn them into profit centers.
Repealing "Bad-driver" Taxes
As a revenue-generating scheme to balance the 2003 budget, Michigan slapped mandatory surtaxes on some traffic fines: an extra $1,000 for driving with a suspended license, $400 or $1,000 for operating without insurance, and $50 a year for each driver-license point over six. Since then, thousands of drivers whose license had been suspended for leaving tickets unpaid have been assessed these huge fines, which the courts are powerless to reduce. Some of the state's poorest citizens are now thousands of dollars in debt to the state. Their licenses can't be restored until they pay up, and often they can't get a job to earn the money without a license. Many inmates of this "modern debtors' prison" are in rural areas, where long drives are needed to find employment.
One of the first bills in 2007 was HB 4006 (Rep. Caswell), which would repeal the "driver responsibility fee" on October 1, 2007. But there has been no action on this bill yet. Hearings were held in late 2006, at which heartbreaking victims' stories were heard.
Knowing that these fines will seldom be paid, and aware of the hardship they cause, most courts have stopped accepting guilty pleas for operating with a suspended license. But that doesn't help the citizens who owe the quarter-billion dollars' worth of unpaid ticket taxes, nor the new victims that are added to the total each day. An amnesty on unpaid taxes will probably be needed if Michigan isn't to sustain a permanent population of unlicensed and unemployable people.
Auto Insurance Rates
Now that the Democrats control the Michigan House, Detroit representatives will finally get a hearing for their efforts to control auto and home insurance premiums in that city. Whether they'll get results remains to be seen.
As of March, 2007, a dozen bills have been introduced to regulate auto insurance, including outlawing rate territories, outlawing rates based on credit ratings, or ordering blanket premium cuts. (See the list elsewhere on this web site.)
The most inventive of these is Rep. Cheeks` Bill No. 4287, to force all insurers to use the same rate territories, and to require territorial rates to be based solely on highway traffic density. The depopulated areas of Detroit with relatively overbuilt streets would get low rates, and growing suburbs like Oakland County, with intense traffic on two-lane roads, would get large increases. This illustrates the problem faced by schemes to mandate low premiums for one place or another.
No-fault Lawsuits. House Democrats moved early on Rep. Condino's HB 4301, which would enlarge the ability of persons injured in auto crashes to sue the responsible driver for pain and suffering, and economic injuries other than total disability. Insurers maintain that this will void most of the benefits of no-fault, and raise premiums.
Fuel Taxes and Road Finance
The squeeze between construction materials cost and static fuel-tax revenues has pretty much brought road improvement to a stop in Michigan. Soon, the present level of maintenance won't be affordable, either. The legislature is likely to consider a road user-fee increase in 2007.
Road-building contractors and road agencies are promoting an increase in Michigan fuel taxes. One pos-sible change would be a 9-cent increase in the gasoline tax, and a 13-cent increase in the Diesel-fuel tax, phased in over 3 years and bringing both to 28 cents/gallon. This would cost an average auto driver $68 more a year. Another scheme would raise registration taxes by 50 per cent. Should we do it?
The Granholm administration is encouraging shifting money from road funds to the General Fund, wherever this money isn't restricted to road and transit use by the Constitution. House Bills 4274 and 4275 would shift vehicle-title fees to general spending, and future bills might move driver-license surtaxes from county roads to the General Fund.
Let's look at what we're spending for roads now.
Transportation Revenue: Michigan spends $3 billion a year on roads and transit. This comes from three sources of roughly a billion dollars each:
Michigan vehicle registrations, costing roughly $111 for a new car and $78 for one of average age. This tax varies with vehicle list price.
Michigan fuel taxes: 18.7 cents/gallon for gasoline and 15 cents for Diesel fuel (not counting Michigan's 6% sales tax, which goes mostly for schools and local-government revenue sharing).
Federal fuel taxes: 18.4 cents/gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for Diesel fuel.
A few cities, townships, and counties use property-tax revenue for streets and transit.
Michigan is a low-tax state as far as transportation goes. A driver of an average car burning 750 gal-lons of gasoline a year to go 15,000 miles in Michigan will pay roughly 2.4 cents in state and federal taxes for each mile driven. That's a little over a dollar a day for the nation's entire road and transit system. Automotive transportation may be the biggest bargain in history.
To put it another way, if a mile of travel in Michigan is bumpy, slow or congested - relax, you only paid 2.4 cents for it.
Rake-offs The Departments of State and Treasury take a cut for collecting the taxes: $8 million a year for collecting the fuel tax from wholesalers, and a whopping $100 million or so for the Secretary of State's license-plate clerks, plus an extra $11 million to replace the blue-painted plates in 2007. That's over $10 a year to keep that piece of tin on your back bumper and mail the little stickers. And the Michigan State Police get $2.25 from each vehicle registration, an appro-priation that isn't even remotely constitutional.
Slicing Up the Pie Vehicle-registration and fuel taxes are restricted by the Michigan Constitu-tion to road and transit use. State transportation revenues are divided roughly this way:
State highways 37%
County roads 35%
City and village streets 19%
Public transit 9%
These percentages are the sum of complicated formulas in Act 51 of 1951, amended over the years. The local shares are divided up among 83 county road commissions and 533 cities and villages ac-cording to road mileage, car registrations, and population.
Federal fuel taxes come back from Washington in the form of federal aid for highway projects and transit. A limited amount is available for transit, financed by diverting 2.86 cents of the tax on each gallon of gasoline. After the transit subsidy, about 90 per cent of Michigan drivers' gas-tax money is returned to this state, and is usable on more-important roads. Roughly 75 per cent of federal aid is used on state highways and the rest on county roads and main city streets.
What Kind of Road System Do We Want? Michigan has a low-cost road system, with per-form-ance to match. Any improvement in the system will cost money that's not available now. Here's what won't be happening anytime soon unless the financial equation changes:
Widening congested county roads in growing suburbs
Adding lanes to more than a few miles of I-75 in Oakland County
Adding lanes to US-23 north of Ann Arbor
Modernizing I-94 (the Ford Freeway) in Detroit
Adding lanes to rural I-94 to cope with massive truck traffic
Widening intersections to reduce delay
Converting more of US-131 and US-127 to freeways
What to Do? If the fuel tax is increased and nothing else is changed, the increase will be divi-ded by the Act 51 formula. That may or may not match where spending is needed. More likely, the legisla-ture will regard the new revenue as found money, and will fight over the spoils. Legis-lators will be eager to appropriate the money directly, for pork-barrel projects that they can take credit for in their districts. County road commissions and local governments will agitate for big-ger shares, and town-ships might want a cut of the take. (Since the start of term limits, legislators are increasingly behold-en to local governments, so they'll be inclined to listen.) Bus enthusiasts will argue for the transit share to be increased to 10 per cent, re-garding that as a minimum entitle-ment instead of the Constitutional maximum. Roads that actually help the majority of Michigan road users get where we want to go might not get any new money, unless motorists demand it.
The $100,000,000/year consumed by renewing license plates could be recovered by making all plates permanent (like trailer plates) and replacing the plate tax with the equivalent in fuel taxes (about $0.15/gallon). The costly plates could be replaced by a sticker you could by at Meijer's or an auto-parts store.
Michigan is one of only 6 states to charge sales tax on motor fuel. This tax could be shifted to road use, and would allow transportation funds to rise with fuel prices.
Although gasoline price rose and fell by $0.80/gallon in 2006, politicians remain scared to death of gas-tax increases of a few cents. In other states, the alternative has been toll roads, or new toll lanes on widened freeways. This idea could surface in Michigan if the legislature continues to ignore worsening road congestion.
The Future of Transportation in Michigan
As congestion spreads over more road miles, the traditional way of supplying and operating roads looks worse and worse. Parceling out money to MDOT, 533 villages and cities, and 83 coun-ties invites a parochial view of the road system.
That $3 billion a year gets spent without any guarantee of performance to the drivers paying the tab. The focus is heavily on pavement repair, ignoring the speed, safety, and reliability of the system. County road commissions struggle with limited funds to keep up with traffic demand caused by growth, and to placate the demands of a dozen competing townships. Cities frequently view road users as nuisances to be slowed down, or as pigeons to be plucked with speed traps. No one regards the road user as a paying customer.
This can change.
The road system of the future might be in the hands of multi-county operations authorities, charged with keeping speeds up and delay down. Money might not trickle down into 616 local pots, but might follow road users as we travel over the system, allocated to main roads in propor-tion to use. New technology makes it possible to manage congestion on arterial roads and opti-mize signals for minimum delay. It also makes it possible to monitor performance and expose officials who let congestion get worse.
En route to the future, some junk should be left behind:
Rail transit. Horrifically-expensive rail transit systems concentrate billions of dollars on a few politi-cally-favored destinations and less than one per cent of person-trips. Bus rapid transit on freely-flowing arterial streets and freeways offers superior transit service at small marginal cost.
Traffic calming. Communities often seek to impede auto travel with narrow roads, speed bumps, low speed limits, and other schemes that they imagine will make neighborhoods safer. The calmest traffic is traffic that moves through cities quickly, quietly, and with the fewest stops.
Myths. "You can't be a world-class city without rail transit." That's a myth. We know one city of over five mil-lion people that leads the world in automation, automotive engineering, affordable housing, livability and resources, without a mile of expensive heavy rail transit. It's called metro-politan Detroit. Let's stop defeating ourselves with destructive myths.
"You can't build your way out of congestion." Sure you can. We've done it many times in the past, and we can do it again whenever we want. The evidence is all around us. Look at the renaissance of Royal Oak and Ferndale after I-696 was opened. Remember traffic on 28th Street before M-6 was built? What was Telegraph like before it was widened? What would life be like without I-275?
What should we build next?
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This page was last updated: August 2010