PAUL EGAN | DETROIT FREE PRESS — LANSING — As Michigan residents await Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to fix the roads, which is to be unveiled in her Tuesday budget presentation, many complain that Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation truck weight limits are a major reason the roads are crumbling and must be addressed in any plan.
Two main issues are whether truck weight limits should be lowered and whether trucks should be paying a greater share of the money the state collects to maintain and repair roads.
Trucks used for farming and for logging were even quietly exempted from the 20 percent hike in vehicle registration fees that other motorists got hit with in 2015.
For motorist Bill Emmerich of Ypsilanti, an information technology worker with an industrial and operations engineering degree from U-M, it can’t be a coincidence that Michigan law allows trucks weighing 164,000 pounds — twice the federal weight limit and higher than any other state allows without a special permit — and that Michigan’s roads are also consistently rated among the nation’s worst.
He’s concerned Whitmer’s budget could raise billions more to fix the roads — through higher fuel taxes and registration fees or through state borrowing — only to see the roads wrecked again by heavy trucks.
Emmerich’s view gets strong pushback, not just from the trucking industry, but from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).
The key issue, say both, is not the total weight of the truck, but how much weight is carried by each axle. A truck weighing 164,000 pounds requires 11 axles in Michigan and carries less weight per axle than a five-axle truck weighing 80,000 pounds — the federal weight limit.
Reducing the weight limit, says MDOT, would result in more trucks, more congestion, and more wear and tear on Michigan roads.
Significantly hiking truck user fees would hurt competitiveness and drive up the cost of consumer goods, says the trucking industry.
“Trucking has never walked away from its responsibility of paying its full share,” said Walter Heinritzi, executive director of the Michigan Trucking Association.
But other experts support the view that trucks should pay more.
“Trucks cause the most damage to Michigan roads” and “are under-priced” in terms of the user fees they pay, said Chris Douglas, chairman of the economics department at U-M Flint and author of a 2018 report on road funding published by the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
“I don’t think you could possibly charge them an amount equal to the damage they do to the roads, but you could certainly charge them more,” said Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, which recently published a report on Michigan’s road funding options that did not address the heavy trucks issue.
It depends on the definition of fairness.
If road wear-and-tear were the only measure of how much a type of vehicle should pay, trucks would have to pick up nearly the entire cost of road maintenance, since the Congressional Budget Office and civil engineers agree that regular passenger vehicles cause almost no damage to roadways — be they interstate freeways or rural side roads.
In Michigan, Thomas — who believes Michigan trucks would be paying too little in user fees even if held to the federal weight limit — calculates that an 80,000-pound truck pays 11 cents per mile in state and federal user fees, but causes 60 cents per mile in damage. Cars, meanwhile, pay three cents per mile in user fees but cause no damage.
Still, most, including Thomas, agree it wouldn’t be fair for trucks to bear the entire cost and that all road users should share the burden of road construction and maintenance, which is also impacted by freeze and thaw cycles and other environmental factors.
There’s less agreement on how the costs should be shared between passenger vehicles and trucks.
They do at the federal level. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon for regular fuel, but 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel — the type used by most tractor trailers.
Also, the sale of new trucks is subject to a 12-percent excise tax, with the proceeds going to the federal highway fund.
Though the trucking industry continues to push for removal of the excise tax, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers said in a 2018 report that “evidence suggests that heavy trucks in particular do not currently face taxes and charges that are aligned with the negative externalities they generate, which include pavement damage, traffic congestion, accident risk and emissions.”
What about at the state level?
Yes and no.
The state gas tax was set at 26.3 cents per gallon for both regular and diesel fuel under legislation passed in 2015. But before that, the tax on regular fuel was 19 cents per gallon, while the tax on diesel fuel was only 15 cents per gallon.
Cars and light trucks in Michigan pay registration fees based on their purchase price and age, costing the typical driver about $150 after a 20 percent increase that was part of the 2015 road funding plan.
Tying registration fees to vehicle purchase prices helps ensure that the amount of fees collected increases with inflation.
Registration fees for heavier trucks are based on their weight and range from $590 per year for trucks weighing 24,000 pounds to $3,741 per year for trucks weighing more than 160,000 pounds, according to numbers compiled by Thomas.
Do certain types of trucks get special breaks?
Both farm trucks and logging trucks were exempted from the 20 percent increase in registration fees that other motorists were hit with in 2015.
And they already paid considerably less, even before that — less, in fact, than even cars pay.
Thomas said in 2012 the average truck hauling milk paid a registration fee of $130 and the average truck hauling logs paid $107.
Are Michigan trucks ever allowed to exceed the 164,000-pound limit?
Truckers who want to haul higher weights routinely apply for and receive special permits to do so, provided no single axle weight exceeds 24,000 pounds.
In 2017, MDOT issued nearly 109,000 permits for vehicles that exceeded normal vehicle weight or size limits, including permits for 96 vehicles that weighed more than 450,000 pounds, according to a House Fiscal Agency report.
The cost of the permits? They’re set at $50 for a single-trip permit and $100 for a permit good for multiple trips with super heavy loads.
“Michigan’s transport permit fees appear to be lower than many other states,” the 2018 report said.
“A review of the transport permit should encompass permit fees to determine if fee revenue is sufficient to recover costs of program administration and enforcement, as well as the costs of road and bridge damage caused by overweight vehicles,” the report said.
Should trucks pay more to save Michigan’s roads?
Heavy trucks typically pay higher registration fees than passenger cars, but do they pay their fair share for how much damage they do to the roads? Many say they don’t.
How much trucks in Michigan pay in state and federal user fees
80,000-pound truck pays 11 cents per mile; cars pay three cents per mile *
Damage by trucks v. cars
Trucks cause 60 cents per mile in damage. Cars cause none.
State gas tax:
26.3 cents per gallon for both regular and diesel fuel . Many say trucks should pay more, just like at the federal level.
Both farm trucks and logging trucks were exempted from a 20 percent increase in registration fees that went into effect in 2015.
* Source: “Roads in Michigan: Quality, Funding & Recommendations,” The Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Contact Paul Egan at 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan