The new tax is being collected for Washtenaw County, which expects to raise just over $7 million. City treasurer Matthew Horning says $2.5 million of that will come from Ann Arbor taxpayers. It is a one-time levy, and all revenue will be spent in 2015.
The new millage came about after months of frustration expressed by voters and city officials about roads mangled by the worst winter on record–and years of state neglect. Ward 3 councilmember Steve Kunselman says that during the August mayoral primary “every person talked about the roads everywhere we went.”
“The roads are a disgrace,” acknowledges newly elected mayor Christopher Taylor. But the city lacked the authority to pass a road millage that would take effect before 2016. So Taylor came up with another solution: ask the county to do it. Taylor drafted a resolution, and, in September, the council passed it ten to one–only Ward 2 independent Jane Lumm opposed it.
Ypsilanti’s city council and the Scio and Pittsfield township boards passed similar resolutions, and in October, the county board approved the tax by a vote of six to three.
Only last summer, commissioners had rejected a local road tax. Ann Arbor commissioner Andy LaBarre, who had initially opposed the idea, says the city council vote was a turning point for him. “When all ten Democratic councilmembers agree, it means something, given their ideological positions,” says LaBarre. He also “heard from a lot of constituents that they would agree to pay taxes [to fix the roads] because of the desperate need.”
Nevertheless, LaBarre sees it as local governments “shouldering the state’s responsibility.”
Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan, says that when you start looking at the funding for road repair and maintenance in Michigan, “You get in the weeds real fast.” The simplified version is that Michigan’s annual road repair budget is $3.4 billion, with $1.2 billion supplied by the federal government and $2.2 billion by the state. The state revenues come from vehicle and fuel taxes, but Michigan has not raised its 19c-per-gallon gas tax since 1997. An additional $600 million for roads is raised annually through local millages, says Donohue, like Ann Arbor’s thirty-year-old street resurfacing and reconstruction millage, which this year brought in $10.5 million.
“The state agreed to [fund road repair] when they took gas tax and vehicle registration fees,” says county board chair Yousef Rabhi of Ann Arbor. “Roads are a nonpartisan issue, but the House still can’t get [legislation increasing taxes and fees] passed.”
Rabhi notes that all the money the county collects from the new tax will be spent in the municipality that contributed it. “That was a condition of my support,” he says. “The other thing I asked for was 30 percent of the total going into roads with non-motorized pathways, because as roads crumble so do our bike lanes.”
Ann Arbor’s $2.5 million will fund seven road projects in Ann Arbor next year: Newport north of Miller, Eisenhower from Ann Arbor-Saline Road to State, State over the I-94 bridge to Ellsworth, Ellsworth from State to Platt, and stretches of Huron Pkwy. and Huron River Dr. Meanwhile, Ann Arbor’s street millage will pay to rebuild Stone School Rd. from I-94 to Ellsworth, Geddes from Huntington to Huron Pkwy., and Packard from Stone School to Platt and from State to Stadium, along with other major road projects.
Won’t all this cause gridlock?
“That is the least of my worries,” says Kunselman. “We’ve got to get it done.”
How’s the tax going over with voters? “I haven’t heard a tremendous amount, but what I’ve heard is overwhelmingly positive,” says Taylor. LaBarre reports his responses are “sixty-five to thirty-five [percent] positive. Nobody likes to raise taxes, but they say this is a good reason.”
“I’ve heard from a few people who’re not excited about it,” says Rabhi, “and I’ve gotten emails from other folks who said it should have gone before voters. But most folks are supportive.”
In a November lame duck session, the state senate voted to increase the tax on wholesale gas and diesel fuels. According to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis quoted in the Detroit Free Press, that would raise between $781 million and $1.5 billion extra per year for road repair. At press time, the state house had not yet taken up the bill.