G-Sync: Taking It to the Streets

Over the last year, 30 citizens were appointed by Mayor Heartwell to be a part of the Sustainable Streets Task Force (SSTF).  The citizens represented diverse backgrounds in urban matters with a combined knowledge of streets, neighborhoods, persons with disabilities, the chamber of commerce, cyclists, engineers, finance, and state and county road commissions. The group has been charged with trying to find a way to address the shortfall in funds concerning our much-maligned roads, which like many places around the country, are beginning to show signs of their age.

This group of citizens and leaders has hammered away on this topic, meeting twice a month to accelerate the urgency of this matter. And if you read any of the social feeds during a snowstorm, you know too well that in this city there is a pecking order of attention.

Part of this order is due to how roads are defined locally, and ultimately, who is responsible for their upkeep. For the sake of space, there are three key areas that are pretty self-explanatory: Federal Aid Urban (our main superhighways), Non-Federal Aid Urban (major roads in our city), and the rest known simply as Local.

For decades, our roads were funded mostly via our gas tax and other funding sources. Given the rising rate of our costs of doing business, with falling revenue as more and more cars are using less gas than before, the shortage of funds being collected and then distributed is very real. The impact is not just to those at City Hall trying to keep up with the repairs, but also to anyone who has traveled our streets.

Ten years ago, 60 percent of our roads were considered “good and fair,” according to Grand Rapids City Planner Suzanne Schulz. “We presently are facing the fact that 60 percent of our roads are considered ‘poor.' If these roads are not fixed within a limited window of time, we accelerate their demise with costs 5-12 times more to replace and rebuild compared to what it costs to repair it."

If we fail to act it could cause another economic domino. This is what the SSTF has on its plate to share on Tuesday, Feb. 12 from 2:15 - 3:15 p.m. with the Grand Rapids City Commission (City Commission Chambers, 9th floor, City Hall, 300 Monroe Ave. NW.)

To start with, it may surprise some to learn that the city does not have a line budget item for street maintenance outside of the gas tax. This is not uncommon with cities of our size, as this method of delivery of funds has worked for years.  But a decade ago, a gamble was made to kick this issue down the road and after a declining economy and reduced driving by citizens, the funds are not where they need to be to get us to the $14 million we need to repair and protect our street assets, which would bring us back to 60 percent “good and fair.”

We do presently get federal grant money to the tune of $3 million, but according to Schulz, this is a matching grant program. With no additional dollars being raised locally, we will be leaving money on the table for others to take.

Governor Snyder realizes, as do leaders all over the country, that the gas tax is becoming outmoded and does not work in a modern era of hybrids and electric cars. The Governor has a plan on the table that would bring us $6 million through increasing fees for registrations, that makes sense and is a good attempt at being fair.

The SSTF has looked at a series of models to make up the $8 million we need to raise locally. They have also packaged within their proposal an invitation to the community to read and share their thoughts on the plan.

A property tax solely on the citizens of Grand Rapids was considered, but this is not fair because of the number of people who rent and work in the city also placing stress on our streets.

Other plans include moving away from the tax per gallon to a vehicle miles tax (VMT). And while this is probably the way things will eventually go, but there are issues with privacy and accountability to be worked out.

A country-wide VMT is going to be implemented in the Netherlands by 2015. For the U.S. to make this a nationwide program, we are looking ahead at least a decade. Already, places like Oregon and Ann Arbor have become test markets.

For us to capture the $8 million we need, the solution is right under our noses. The people of Grand Rapids voted a few years ago to increase the income tax rate to ensure our city services are preserved. This fee is collected fairly from those who live here and those who commute here to work via our income tax.   

If we voted to continue this increase set to expire in 2015 (that we are already paying), then we would just continue on with our current tax rate while dedicating a whopping $9 million to invest in our streets and sidewalks.

We could move the responsibility of sidewalk repair and construction, currently paid for by the business and land owners, into this funding structure being proposed.  

This would be a huge win and in delivery, we would be consolidating even more services where we have some redundancy. There are even opportunities for other projects related to street and curb appeal that could be harnessed with these funds, thus creating a more vibrant city culture. This is important for a state looking to attract and retain. People looking to relocate here won’t take a second look if our roads look like crap.

The proposal sounds too good to be true, and it is true that this fairy tale solution has a few weak spots.

The obvious one is a challenge Governor Snyder recognizes as he faces a legislative branch more focused on scoring party points than getting anything really done, particularly anything requiring the type of collaboration between the opposing members needed to bring this in for a win for our state and city. It's across the aisle time, folks.

The task force has looked at a sizable number of options including some that are very extreme and would cause real hardship, because the imbalance would not be proportionate to the benefit received. For example, a property tax based solution would require the property owner be charged a fee based on their property street frontage. In this case, I pity the person with a sizable corner lot. The SSTF recognizes it would be a disaster if we moved to this model when we already have an income tax model that proves it works.

If we could adopt the SSTF's plan, which has to include the Governor's proposal as well as our own, we would be acting responsibly with the asset management of our streets. Not only do we need to lead locally on this issue, but we also need the state leadership to step up as well.

"The best way to look at our streets is through an asset management model we often apply to cars except with one big difference," said Schulz. "If you have a car and only put gas in it but ignore the oil change, you are going to lose that car sooner than later. And with streets repairs, when you get to failure, you can't just go out and buy a used street. You are forced to buy a brand new car."

So what is required of you as a citizen? At the risk of not sounding too preachy, we need to drop our pretense and listen to the SSTF report. We must be slow to the reactionary, but also be reasonably informed in our reply.  It seems like an easy task, but we know too well from the modern political arena that collaboration and discussion have been replaced with vitriol and anonymous finger pointing. We must listen, collaborate, and activate the solution.  

We have a beautiful city; let’s keep it that way. Tuesday begins a new chapter for all of us.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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