Investment: It should be more than just roads

Everyone seems to be ready to embrace the need for a substantial boost in state funding for transportation, even as they try to find the least politically objectionable way to do it.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that due to more fuel efficient vehicles, Michigan drivers are spending less on gasoline, therefore less on the gasoline taxes, and the state’s transportation budget is suffering because of it. We need to find more money to make sure our roads are well maintained and commerce can move forward.

While the need for additional investment in critical infrastructure – and in mass transit – is obvious, the reality is that Michigan today is spending more tax dollars on roads today than it did in 2000 – a lot more, largely due to federal support. Meanwhile, in other equally vital areas of the state’s budget – higher education and cities – the state is spending a lot less. And there’s little groundswell of support for greater investment in those areas, even though they are vital to preparing, attracting and retaining college graduates, the key source of prosperity in the knowledge economy.

Here are the numbers (courtesy of the Senate Fiscal Agency):

In 2000-01, the state spent $3.036 billion on roads, including federal funds. In the 2012-13 fiscal year we are now in, that will be $3.466 billion, a $410 million or 13 percent increase.

Turn to higher education. In 2000-01, the state spent $1.910 billion, including federal funds. This year, it will spend $1.399 billion. That’s a 26 percent cut in overall spending, down $511 million.

Revenue sharing? In 2000-01, the state sent $1.555 billion to cities. This year: $1.096 billion – a $459 million cut, 29.5 percent less than a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the miles of roads and number of bridges the state is responsible for likely has changed very, very little over that decade. But the number of college students has increased by more than 8 percent.

It’s good for people to argue that we need to invest more in the state’s transportation system. That’s particularly true when it comes to mass transit.

But the argument for investment in higher education and cities is equally – if not more – important if Michigan is going to win the war for prosperity by moving our state firmly into the 3.0 economy where good paying jobs are being created.

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