So let’s be clear. I don’t like toll roads. The idea feels strange in the state that put the world on wheels. But we need to get real about what’s facing us when it comes to road funding, and everything should be on the table.

Our Detroit region is sprawling. The other week while reporting on a story in Macomb, I realized looking at Google Maps that the driving time from my house in Detroit to the Macomb County Public Works building I was visiting was about the same as if I had drove to Ann Arbor. And there are tons of roads in between.

And Michigan, with a land area of about 56,538 square miles, is bigger than some countries. Like Bangladesh at 55,598 sq. miles. Or Greece with 50,949.

Considering the lack of other real options for transit between cities, this means miles and miles and miles of roads. And they get used a lot.

The fact is we’re talking about billions of dollars needed to get our current roads to a reasonable state, not millions. Macomb County alone says they need a billion dollars. Driving the off-road course that is 14 Mile bordering Warren and Sterling Heights, I believe it.

So here are three points we need to consider to be honest about this debate.

  1. Fixing our roads is going to require more money. One way or another. What we’re doing is not enough. Our grade is currently a D-. It’s like walking into a department store and needing a $100 coat for winter and only having $35. You just can’t pay for it.
  2. If we’re not going to raise taxes (or “revenue” in politician speak) where specifically do leaders propose we cut? It’s disingenuous at best for road funding opponents to say anything like “cut waste in Lansing” or “MDOT” when stuff like this happens.
  3. We may have among the highest gas taxes at the pump, and the proposal yesterday would make us the highest. But the sucky reality is we still spend the least of all of our neighbors per person on roads. Just $154 per person. Ohio has better roads not because of Buckeye magic, but because they spend more, $214 per person. The Ohio Turnpike alone brought in more than $329 million in revenue in 2017. In Illinois, their turnpike the same year brought in about $1.4 billion. They also spend $412 per person on their roads.

In addition to toll roads, another idea is to stop government subsidized sprawl. If a new development wants to happen during this time where we can’t afford to maintain what we already have, the developers need to pay for their own roads, water and sewer connections. That’s often added as a sweetener for projects, which not only costs taxpayers money now, but ongoing dollars to maintain in the future.

If someone has a better idea than anything above, I’m all for it. This isn’t about who’s right, or which party came up with the idea, but what could work.

The Michigan family is going to have to make some hard choices. None of them are great. We will have to choose between failing roads, higher taxes, or significant cuts to other services, such as education — especially if we’re not going to diversify how our roads are paid for.

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