Mayor, MDOT director patch roads to support tax

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and MDOT Director Kirk Steudle patch a road to show support for a proposed city tax extension. (April 28, 2014)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On Lake Michigan Drive Monday, Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle and Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell  were turning the pothole problem into a photo op.

The two men, normally clad in a suit and tie, walked behind city patch crew rigs, slinging shovels full of hot asphalt into the many cracks and crevices that pock Lake Michigan Drive on the city’s west side.

“I’m here supporting infrastructure investment across the state, whether it’s the city level, the state level and frankly at the Washington level. We’ve got the same issue going on in Washingtonm,” Steudle said, referring to the funding problem that has driven Grand Rapids city leaders to go to taxpayers asking for a fix.

Meanwhile on the east side, an opponent of a proposed tax extension to fix city roads went door-to-door.

“I’m campaigning against next Tuesday’s income tax vote,” Grand Rapids Taxpayers Association member Michael Farage said as he climbed the steps of a home in Eastown to hand out anti-road tax literature. “A lot of people aren’t even aware that there’s still an election.”

Voters will decide next week whether to approve the tax extension. If the measure passes, the five-year income tax increase passed in 2010 will be extended to 2030. Revenue would go to fix Grand Rapids streets.

Farage says taxpayers are already paying for roads through the state gas tax. That’s one of several arguments members of his group are using to convince voters to say no.

“So now another branch of government is saying, ‘Come along and give us an increase for 15 years and we’ll take care of the problems,'” Farage said. “Not happening.”

But the state gas tax hasn’t increased since 1997 and the funding can’t keep up with increases in the cost of road repairs, according to those supporting the Grand Rapids initiative. The local money would be part of the solution.

“We’ll still fall $6 million short, even with this ballot initiative approved. The state simply has to step up,” Heartwell said.

The state is working on a new plan. But so far, the talk in the legislature on solutions to the road woes has been just that: Talk.

Steudle said he’s all for local communities coming up with part of the solution. But could that backfire if Tuesday’s vote passes and state legislators delay action because local taxpayers are taking care of the funding deficit?

“I don’t see that as being a big problem because the problem is so large,” said Steudle, adding that Gov. Rick Snyder has been calling for locals to solve part of the problem all along. “If you go back to Gov. Snyder’s State of the State address two years ago, he called for the investment in infrastructure and he called for some kind of local option.”

The election is set for Tuesday, May 6.

Wednesday, 24 Hour News 8 will sit down with both city leaders and the people opposed to the tax to get more answers on how city streets got to this point, and

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