Q&A: Michigan Gov. Whitmer on why gas tax increase is best plan to fix roads

Whitmer answers questions on roads plan

In March, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer revealed her plan to fix the roads in the state, proposing a 45-cent gas tax increase.

Now, Whitmer is on the road trying to sell Michiganders on why this is the plan to finally "fix the damn roads."

Local 4's Hank Winchester and the Help Me Hank team recently went for a drive with the governor and talked about the plan, the reaction, how it all came together and why her plan will work.

Q&A with Gov. Whitmer on the plan to fix Michigan roads:

Hank: What was the motivation for you when you started the "fix the damn roads," because you've lived it like we all have?

Gov. Whitmer: I replaced two windshields during the course of the campaign. We had a blowout on the side of the freeway, I had to call Uber to get to my event to be on time. We left my brother, who was driving me at the time, back to deal with the fallout.

Hank: So, you've lived it?

Gov. Whitmer: And I've heard story after story after story from people who can't afford to keep fixing their cars. And they're frustrated and I think it undermines our ability to tell the world, we are doing cutting edge manufacturing, R&D and mobility right now when the you look at the roads we're driving on. Some areas look like war zones. 

Hank: We're driving here in Dearborn. Ford Motor Co. is just a few miles away and you can't deny it -- the ride's a little shaky. You drive to other states, you travel to Ohio, it doesn't feel like this. We're doing something wrong. In your mind, does it just come down to money?

Gov. Whitmer: It does, unfortunately. It's not that Ohio has better weather than we have. It's not that Ohio has figured out the engineering better than we have. Ohio is spending the money that it takes. Even with that, they continue to invest and rebuild. The Governor of Ohio, a Republican, Mike DeWine has introduced a budget that includes an 18-cent gas tax. 18-cents from the roads they have, which are superior to ours -- and they have toll roads. 

So when you think about the fact that they've been rebuilding roads like you should, they've been maintaining them like you should...that's the difference. We fill potholes instead of rebuild roads in this state. We have been doing it for a long time. That's why the crisis is so expensive and so dangerous. 

Hank: Do you feel the pressure to really get something done now, because your campaign was built on this. I mean, you for roads is President Trump with the wall. Really, it's what it comes down to. 

Gov. Whitmer: Well, I do feel the need to get something done. I ran because I'm tired of phony solutions. I'm tired of people who will do a half measure and tell you they solved a problem when you know darn well they really didn't. That's what we've been getting for 40 years in our state, we've been dis-investing from the things that matter and now the bill is due and we've got to get started. 

Every year we don't do this, the money coming out of our pockets to fix our cars gets more expensive, the danger of traveling these roads gets more acute, our ability to maintain our edge in mobility is undermined, bottom lines for businesses are smaller because they're repairing their fleets.  

This is a fundamental problem in our state. It's time to be real, it's time to fix it and it's not going to be cheap. It's not going to happen over night but I put a real solution on the table and I stand by it. 

Hank: But do you really think it's a real solution, because I believe that there are a lot of people who look at the gas tax roll out and thought -- that's it? The governor talked about this for a year and I think people were expecting a different plan. Something different than a gas tax. Did you have a different plan?

Gov. Whitmer: So we ran all sorts of different scenarios. How do you raise $2.5 billion? That will be dedicated to roads. Because the magnitude of the problem, everyone agrees, is $2.5 billion annually. How do you insure that the dollars go into roads? If there is a superior plan out there, I'd love to see it and I'm open to having that conversation, if someone has a better way of fixing this problem. But I'm not going to play games, and I'm not going to embrace fake solutions and to tell the public we solved the problem because short of $2.5 billion to fix this problem, we're going to have this problem year after year until we do. And the price tag gets worse. 

Hank: Is it 45 cents and you're sticking to it or is there going to be some flexibility here?

Gov. Whitmer: If the legislature said we'll do 30 cents and we'll increase registrations by whatever it takes to make up the difference, certainly we will have that conversation but if someone says we will do 15 cents, that's not an alternative solution. That means we're going to be content to manage the decline and watch this get worse and pay more for it. That's not going to be good enough. 

On addressing debate comments on gas tax

Hank: So sometimes old video comes back to haunt us and there's a moment during the debate in Grand Rapids where then-AG Bill Schuette is asking you about the 20 cent increase or 25 cent increase, and at the time, you said was ridiculous. What changed from that moment?

Gov. Whitmer: I don't think anything changed. I know people are grabbing onto that like that was an epiphany. Bill Schuette was trying to deflect from the fact that he had zero plan and he thought we could magically fix the roads and he was putting it on me.

Hank: So it wasn't about the number?

Gov. Whitmer: It wasn't even about the gas tax. It was ridiculous for him to tell the world that I was going to do something that I never said I was going to do, I hadn't embraced that, I hadn't put that plan out there. 

Hank: But you did make it clear that, in all fairness, during that debate moment that a gas tax didn't seem like a possibility for you. 

Gov. Whitmer: No. I never wrote off the possibility of having a gas tax. I said we're going to fix the damn roads. When you get in, you see the magnitude of hundreds of millions dollars of lawsuits against the last administration that are going to come due on my watch, a legislature that spends $1.3 billion on their way out the door on the last day of session, IT problems that plague all departments of state government and then, a crumbling infrastructure problem that's $2.5 billion a year. You don't have the options that you otherwise would have or should have.

And so, when you think about, what are the other alternative ways of doing this? To get to $2.5 billion, you'd have to increase the corporate income tax three-fold. So from 6 percent to 18 percent. With the legislature I've got, that's even less of a starter. We could increase the income tax, we have to go to a vote of the people and hope a future legislature appropriates the money to the roads. So it's not a real solution for roads. We could increase the sales tax, we'd have to increase a couple of pennies and hope it'd go to the people and hope the legislature appropriates the money. 

There's not a solution that you can raise the revenue it's going to take to fix the problem and make sure it's going to go where it's supposed to go because that's part of the problem. We've had, for 40 years we've been playing this shell game. We're filling potholes with general fund money right now. To use up the general fund, we're stealing from our kids' education. Which means we're not doing any of it right. We're not rebuilding roads the right way. We're not educating our kids the right way and we're compromising the general fund for all things from water cleanliness or the cost of higher education.  The shell game has hurt us on all these fronts. My budget fixes that. I ran to fix problems and that's what I'm doing. 

On selling the gas tax to Michiganders

Hank: When you're out and about, talking to people, what's the general reaction from people about the gas tax?

Gov. Whitmer: I think people hear the 45 cents and it's jarring. It is. I get that. That's why I built in the earn income tax credit, doubling it. That's why I built in eliminating the pension tax, to get people who are going to struggling to pay, some relief. But then you see that we're dead last when it comes to literacy outcomes for our kids. We are dead last when it comes to the quality of our roads and infrastructure. We are behind the curve when it comes to the skills gap, we've got a lot of communities that cannot drink their water. 

When you see how we stack up and what it's going to take to fix this, people come out of it more often than not, saying. "I wasn't crazy about it coming in, but now I see what you're trying to do and I support it." That's why I'm doing so many town halls, that's why we've enlisted an army of people to go out around the state and talk about what this is. It's been a long time since the people of this state have been respected enough to be given the truth and an honest solution to the real problem. 

Hank: When you're talking with those people, there have been people in Detroit, and lower income communities that say, I simply cannot afford this. It's not going to work for my life. Some say it simply targets those who are living below the poverty line to begin with. How are they going to afford this? 

Gov. Whitmer: I don't like the idea of having to introduce the gas tax. No one wants to embrace having a gas tax. But the reality is, we're all paying for terrible roads. We're paying out of our pocket to fix our cars. The average driver in this state is paying $646 a year to fix the rims or the tires or the windshields. The Metropolitan Detroit driver is paying a heck of a lot more than that. 

We're paying a road tax today. And we're paying in the worst way, because it doesn't actually fix the roads. And that's why when we do solve this problem, every driver will see benefit as the roads get better you'll have to repair your car less. People on the lower, socio-economic spectrum will have some relief through the earn income tax credit or the pension tax elimination.  I understand, this will be hard for some people. I wish I didn't have to put this solution on the table but 40 years of disinvestment and games out of Lansing have put us in this crisis. We have to start fixing it. 

Hank: Do the games really end though? I think that's the thing. Everybody looks back, go back to Engler, Granholm and Snyder -- it's never been fixed. What's going to be different now? Because as you know, your Republican colleagues were very quick to say, no way, not going to happen. 

Gov. Whitmer: Well, everyone agrees what the price tag is. So, I'd like, the next time you talk to them, ask them, so what's your plan?

Hank: And I've asked Representative Lucido that and I'll tell you what, they've all got a different answer. His is going back to the SOS and putting fees on registration, doing things like that. Everybody's got a different solution but nobody can get anywhere near even a billion dollars, much less two and a half. 

Gov. Whitmer: The price tag is $2.5 billion and the price tag goes up every year we don't actually start solving this. 

On auto insurance costs in Michigan

Hank: I know insurance is very important to you. You've called for this audit. Transparency, which I think is something that voters really appreciate. Why is that audit so important to you?

Related: Mandatory Michigan auto fee rising in July; Whitmer orders audit

Gov. Whitmer: Well, I think we were all pretty (surprised) by the news yesterday about this increase without any information or ability to assess if it's reasonable, what it is for, and why all of a sudden are they taking this action. So I want to know and I think we deserve to know. It's one of my problems with the whole car insurance debate, the lack of information that the industry has shared with us. It's a problem. And until we fix that, we won't have actually fixed why we have such high rates in this state. 

Hank: Do you think there could be a rolled-together, we fix car insurance and we try to fix roads all in a package together?

Whitmer: I think it's possible! You know, I'm asking for a significant commitment to fix the infrastructure. If we gave car owners relief through the form of lower insurance rates to mitigate that, that'd be great. But I'm going to sign the budget before I sign that because I want to make sure we get the budget done. 

On toll roads and auto industry

Gov. Whitmer: I went to Lake Orion for the General Motors announcement last week. $300 million in cutting edge technology and electric vehicles. I talked to the plant manager and he was telling me, the service road to get in there, the whole road looked like that (riddled with potholes). And I said oh my god, I've got to fix that damn road! He said, I have car haulers who will not come into the plant because of how much damage happens on that one mile stretch from the highway to the plant. So, you think about this company that we desperately need and want to grow and to evolve and build the cars of the future right here in Michigan, and yet, the service road to the company is so bad, service haulers won't come pick up the vehicles they're making. 

Hank: So then why not put some of the financial burden on the companies that are coming into Michigan? These are the questions we get. Why can't we do toll roads? Why can't we put it on trucking companies that are coming in and out?

Gov. Whitmer: So, yeah. Let's talk about toll roads. Michigan is a peninsula state. It's a wonderful thing. We're surrounded by water. The downside is, people don't cut through Michigan. No one drives through Michigan to get somewhere else. I drive through Ohio all the time. Illinois, Indiana. Pennsylvania. You can drive through those states and collect fees towards maintenance of the roads from out of starters. We don't have that luxury here in Michigan. We're a destination state and that's one of the reasons that toll roads have been such a difficult concept for a state like Michigan. 

I believe in the next five years, we may have the technology where we can actually charge "miles traveled" where you're in an electric vehicle, a hybrid, or a traditional gas vehicle. That you'll pay more akin to what your fair share of use is. Especially as more electric vehicles are on the roads. But we're not at that juncture yet. We can't wait five years to start fixing this problem. Four years from now, if we don't start doing anything different than we are now, the problem will be $3.5 billion. 

Also see: Why doesn't Michigan have toll roads?

On other infrastructure

Hank: And it's not just roads, I think people have this misconception. More than 40 percent of the bridges in the state are in poor condition. If you're driving over a bridge that could be crumbling, that's a safety issue.

Gov. Whitmer: It very much is a safety issue. Everyone's skeptical (is it really that bad?). We have bridges in Michigan that have hundreds of temporary supports holding them up. Temporary supports. Without any plan to fix the bridge. So those are supports that aren't supposed to be long-term and yet there's no long term plan to fix that bridge. There's no funding to do it. 

Buses. See, there's a school bus right there, carrying kids that is driving over those bridges or under bridges.

Hank: And hitting a crater in the road. 

Gov. Whitmer: Right. like this. And I'm worried, there will be a catastrophe in our state. Minnesota had that bridge collapse. And then they finally made some big investments in their infrastructure. I don't want that to have to happen here. That's why I'm trying to fix it now. 

Hank: Those are parts of the issue that people don't look at big. They're looking a pothole and wondering why does it cost so much, it's not just a pothole. It's infrastructure. 

Gov. Whitmer: It's rebuilding. We have been papering over the problem for so long. We fill another pothole, we add another layer in hopes of smoothing it out and buying a little bit more time. But roads have a life. And at some point, they have to be rebuilt. Good maintenance can buy you time. But poor maintenance is just putting off the inevitable and endangering people -- and making the ultimate resolution a heck of a lot more expensive. 

Hank: You brought up a good point a few weeks ago, even the material we're using are not of the quality we should be using when we're doing this work.

Gov. Whitmer: In the winter, you've got very few options when you have a pothole that is damaging cars. We had to shut down I-75 this past winter because of the freeze and thaw that happened, that sidelined almost 20 vehicles. We had to shut down I-75 because of potholes. That is an important artery in our highway system. We had to just shut it down because you couldn't drive on it. What the solution is, is coldpatch. It's the one thing you can use during the cold temps but it pops right out as soon as it warms up. Now, if we were actually rebuilding roads, we would rebuild that road. At least use a better quality material for a longer life span. 

On if she thinks she'll get the funding

Hank: Do you think you're going to get the money you need?

Gov. Whitmer: I do

Hank: Do you think it's going to come as a gas tax?

Gov. Whitmer: I put a solution on the table and if someone's got a better one, I'm all for it -- but it has to raise the right amount of money, which is $2.5 billion, it has to be dedicated to roads, it has to be a long term solution. These are the criteria and anything short of that is fake.

About the Authors:

Hank Winchester is Local 4’s Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV’s “Help Me Hank” Consumer Unit. Hank works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off people in our community.