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Michigan Senate votes to require study of highway tolls

David Eggert
Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Senate voted on Tuesday to require that a study be done to examine the possibility of collecting tolls along the state’s highways, as lawmakers consider ways to boost spending on deteriorating infrastructure.

The bill, which was sent to the House for consideration, is among several proposals related to road funding that have cleared the Republican-led chamber. Democrats voted against the bills, after complaining that provisions in them are meant to shift money in a way that would prevent high union-level wages from being paid on local road projects.

Under the tolling legislation, which passed 31-7, the state Department of Transportation would have to hire an outside consulting firm to conduct a study and to provide a potential-implementation plan — taking into account revenue projections from “optimal” tolling rates, vehicle counts and types, and traffic diversion. The firm would be required to forecast the likely economic effects and feasibility of tolls and Michigan’s ability to give discounts to local residents, commuters and in-state drivers.

“We’re still in the mode where I think no options should be eliminated completely,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican. He said tolling “might actually work” in some parts of Michigan, but stressed that lawmakers are merely proposing a study. He urged the public to not “overreact.”

Unlike nearby states such as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, Michigan has no toll roads. If the tolling bill were approved by the GOP-controlled House and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,a Democrat, the consultants enlisted for the resulting study would have 18 months to deliver a final product. Whitmer is expected to announce a new road-spending plan in her State of the State speech on Wednesday, after Republicans last year rejected her proposed 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax hike.

The Senate also passed bills that would increase the Transportation Department’s allotment of federal aid while letting local road agencies trade their portion of federal dollars for state money. The legislation would not generate new revenue or lead to additional spending but could save between 20% and 30% on labor costs for local construction, according to the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency.

All 16 Democrats voted against the proposal, which they characterized as an attempt to skirt the federal “prevailing” wage law after GOP legislators in 2018 repealed a similar Michigan law for state-financed projects.

“We think the most-trained, best workers in the state should be working on our roads and we shouldn’t be playing games with the safety of Michigan citizens,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint. He said tolling, however, should get a “full vetting” to “see if it’s even feasible.”

Other bills would require the state to measure inflation in highway construction costs, mandate that the state and counties secure pavement warranties for projects costing more than $5 million — the current threshold is $2 million — and offer state grants to help local agencies with engineering work.

“This reform package is designed to maximize road funding efficiency to ensure we use our tax dollars as effectively as possible,” said Sen. Tom Barrett, a Charlotte Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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