Proposal 1: Potholes, Principles, and Public Transit, Too

DDOT's Route 53 navigates Woodward during resurfacing.
DDOT’s Route 53 navigates Woodward during resurfacing.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard about Proposal 1. The May 5 ballot proposal would increase the sales tax to help repair Michigan’s roads – as well as doing a number of other things, like increasing money for schools.

There’s been plenty of sound and fury about the proposal and how we should vote on it. (The Detroit Free Press has an entire website devoted to analyzing the proposal, complete with diagrams of how a pothole forms.) But almost all of the talk has been from a driver’s perspective. Bus riders, of course, also want our roads fixed. Yet we need to know what Proposal 1 will mean for public transit, too.

There’s no question that better roads will reduce wear and tear on buses, for one thing. But Proposal 1 will also put more money directly into Michigan’s public transit systems: an estimated $130 million per year across the state. That’s because it channels the new money through Michigan’s “Act 51 formula,” the state transportation law that sets aside a maximum of about 10% of all transportation money for public transportation. Some of the religiously-minded among us call it the “transit tithe.”

In fact, some opponents of Proposal 1 have been railing against the new money for transit, saying bus riders don’t pay their fair share. As we should all know, however, drivers don’t actually pay their fair share of road costs, either, and bus riders pay to subsidize freeways that we may never use.

Folks like the Michigan Public Transportation Association (MPTA) and Detroit Department of Transportation director Dan Dirks all strongly support Proposal 1. The ads for the proposal won’t let you know that, though, since the political operatives behind the “Safe Roads Yes” campaign think many voters are less likely to support public transit than “just fixing the roads.”

The Freedom Riders haven’t taken a formal position on Proposal 1. There are certainly things in the proposal that we like less than others. The sales tax, for one thing, is an inherently regressive way to get money: it hurts poor people more than the rich, who have plenty of money to spend. As folks who believe in economic justice, we tend to think that’s a problem.

Another issue is that Proposal 1 doesn’t specify exactly how the new money for roads would be spent. We’d say it ought to be used for fixing our existing roads, not widening them or building new highways that contribute to sprawl and disinvestment in our cities, as the state Department of Transportation currently proposes for I-94 and I-75.

So, from a bus rider perspective, Proposal 1 clearly isn’t perfect. At the same time, we have to ask what would happen in the event that it doesn’t pass.

There’s a strong possibility that if Proposal 1 gets voted down, as the anti-tax organizations hope, “Plan B” will be a proposal that’s much less favorable to bus riders. Last year, the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives tried to pass a road funding bill that cut transit out of new funding entirely. If there is a “Plan B” at all, it’s very likely it might look very similar, shutting down any chance of new statewide transit funding for years to come.

In addition, both of these objections to Proposal 1 can be at least partially addressed. Despite the regressive effect of higher sales taxes, Proposal 1 would trigger a restoration of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which would do a lot to help working people. As for highway widening projects, we can still continue the fight against those in other arenas.

On balance, then, it seems like Proposal 1 may be our best shot for a while at getting more money into public transit around the state. Consider your decision carefully, but don’t forget that what’s at stake is not just potholes and principles, but buses, too.

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