Talking Michigan Transportation

Why the state is asking citizens how to fund transportation

February 02, 2024 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 6 Episode 170
Talking Michigan Transportation
Why the state is asking citizens how to fund transportation
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation about the road usage charge (RUC) survey conducted to gauge citizen’s thoughts on funding transportation infrastructure. 

Jean Ruestman, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Office of Passenger Transportation, explains how the department sought and won a federal grant to fund the survey and why the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is incentivizing states to gather the information. 

Some key takeaways: 

  • The survey is a research project and not about setting policy regarding the implementation of an RUC.
  • This statewide survey is the first step in exploring how RUC, if implemented, might affect people’s modal choices (taking transit, selecting alternative less congested routes, traveling at different times of the day) and in exploring new ways to sustainably and fairly fund and maintain public transit systems, roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure in Michigan. 
  • One possible funding tool is RUC, or paying based on vehicle miles traveled, which means drivers would pay a few cents for each mile driven versus paying based on how much gas they buy.
  • The Legislature adopted legislation in 2022 requiring MDOT to study tolling as an additional or alternative funding method. The Legislature later requested that the department examine RUC.
  • Gov. Whitmer’s Growing Michigan Together Council recommended lawmakers examine alternative funding sources for Michigan’s transportation infrastructure.   
  • No policy changes like this are being debated by the Legislature at this time.
  • Many other states are exploring RUC, with some already having implemented similar systems (Utah, Oregon, Virginia, and Hawaii).
Speaker 2:

Hello and welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranston. May have heard the news this week that MDAT, with the help of a federal grant, is seeking Michigander's thoughts on how to best fund transportation infrastructure going forward. You've probably also heard that Michigan policymakers have failed to adequately fund transportation infrastructure for decades and while the need for more revenue has been documented in vast and comprehensive studies, the primary source of revenue for roads and bridges fuel taxes are diminishing because we drive more fuel-efficient vehicles and are in a historic transition to electric vehicles. Gene Rusman, who directs MDAT's Office of Passenger Transportation, which helps fund local transit agencies across the state, joined me to talk about the federal grant and the reasons for pursuing the survey. I hope you enjoy the conversation. So again I'm with Gene Rusman, who is the director of the Office of Passenger Transportation at MDAT, and as you hear this, it will be Groundhog's Day, and that seems appropriate because we've been talking about what to do about transportation funding for a long, long time in Michigan and not making any progress. Gene, start first and you've been a guest before, but talk about your office and what it does in the relationship with transit agencies across the state MDAT. Unlike some state DOTs, mdat doesn't operate any transit services itself but has an important role as a liaison between those local agencies and the federal government in passing through funding and in some regulatory roles. Can you talk about that?

Speaker 1:

I would love to yes, our office administers all the state funds that go to the public transit agencies across the state. And when I say public transit agencies, that's broad, it's all the public bus systems that you see, the local transits. We have a role in inner city bus and helping fund inner city bus service so that people in all areas have a connection to that national transportation network. And we actually fund ferry boat systems, public ferry boat systems in the state, to make sure that even people who live on islands, if there is a public agency willing to provide some service, that we assist with that too. So we also pass through federal funds to the rural agencies so that they can access all the federal dollars that are available to them. And I think even more importantly, we provide technical assistance and we provide a listening ear so that we can pass their concerns and their needs onto the legislature and onto people who can maybe help improve things in the public transit industry.

Speaker 2:

Do you feel like you're an advocate, obviously, for public transportation, and so am I. Do you feel sometimes like it's difficult to walk that line between doing what you do and personally being an advocate of this? For all kinds of reasons, mostly because of the need for everybody to have some sort of mobility. It's just a right I would say it's a human right and certainly because of what it means to the environment.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely I. Actually that's part of the reason I love my job is that I can take something I'm passionate about, and that's my day job too. Being an advocate for this industry doesn't mean overlooking rules. It doesn't mean breaking rules. It doesn't mean doing this at the cost of everything else. It means figuring out how public transit can maintain their seat at the table as part of the overall transportation network in this state and around the country, quite frankly. So I think it's important that we work hand in hand with our partners in every mode and our partners in other avenues of life. We impact so many other programs by getting people to those services that are offered by other programs. So, quite frankly, I think it's pretty easy for me to tell that line, because I think that line has become blurred and I think we all need to work together to achieve these goals.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, very, very well said. So let's talk about this survey. And you know why the Federal Highway Administration is incentivizing states to gather this kind of information. And you know the Michigan legislature has asked MDOT. First they passed a bill in 2022 asking MDOT to study tolling, but then, in boilerplate language, in following budget, they asked MDOT to look at vehicle miles traveled or road use its charges. So that dovetails really nicely with the purpose of the survey, right?

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. Yeah, I think you know everyone around the country, the federal government and all these associations, and everyone sees the writing on the wall. We know that right now we are reliant for the larger share of our funding for all types of transportation. We're reliant on a gas tax, but vehicles are getting many more miles to the gallon. A lot of people are switching to alternate fuels, whether that be electric or hydrogen or you know, you name it. They're switching to alternate, cleaner fuels so that gas tax is dwindling and we really have to start having serious conversations and doing more than just talking about how do we replace those funds or enhance those funds. And that's why I think the legislature is so interested. The federal government is again, it's partnerships. We learn more if we're all working toward that same goal. So while we're doing this study, there are many states around the country who are doing studies, who are implementing demonstrations and some who've gone all in doing road use charging, and so we can collectively take that information and implement a better system up front, rather than, you know, keeping all the information to ourselves and failing and watching other people fail. And it's just, and the federal government is going to help be that conduit for that information nationwide. So we're really excited when they agreed to fund this project. And our project really is kind of twofold Right. Our first goal for this research project and is a research project. The first goal was to just measure how well people understand what road use charging is. What do we mean when we say rock or road use charges? And once we get a measure of that in the beginning of the survey we actually and this is a spoiler we actually show a little video that explains what a road use charge is and then we ask if that helped. And then we ask how do you feel about that? Do you think that's a fair way? Do you think road use charging is a fair way to collect transportation funding? Is it equitable? How should we be collecting that data? How should we be billing for that road use charge? It's vitally important that we listen to the citizens across the state, get their opinion on this whole concept. Then the second phase of our research project is really focused on modal shift. So how would road use charging impact people's choices when it comes to how to get from point A to point B? If they understand the cost of that trip, might they switch out of their single occupant vehicle into a transit vehicle or decide to carpool or take a less congested route. So we hope to learn a lot from this and teach from this research project as well.

Speaker 2:

I think that the whole road user charge model fits with a question I've long had, which is why we don't treat transportation like a public utility. I mean, we pay for our electricity and our natural gas based on the meter and that's based on how much we use, right. So this goes in that direction. A lot of the questions we received the last couple of days were about the gift card, the incentive for people to participate in a survey. I did a little research on this and it's been used for quite some time by private industry across the sectors and it's known now as a very successful way. Many other DOTs have been doing this with their surveys, not just tied to road user charges but to performance and what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong, those kinds of things. But incentivizing people to participate has become a fact of life and governments supposed to operate like a business, according to some. So I think it makes perfect sense. What are your thoughts on that?

Speaker 1:

I agree with you and the federal government agrees with you. So for this research project, Federal Highway Administration FHWA actually agreed that we could use federal funds to pay for all the incentives. So they believe strongly that if we want to get a large number of responses here from a large number of people, that it's important to incentivize. That's just the way the world is right now. We do hope some people will respond despite the money, regardless of the money, because we have had a great response to this, I think because of that incentive, and we've already hit 14,000 survey responses in two days, and I'm going to give a little asterisk to that. We received a lot more responses than that, but we're using some sophisticated software through a partner company to vet those responses and make sure that we're not hearing from a computer without a person behind it, that it's not a bot or an AI response, but that we're actually hearing from the citizens of Michigan.

Speaker 2:

Or an out-of-state person. Exactly Right, exactly.

Speaker 1:

So the incentives I know some people it rubs them the wrong way and they're worried about us spending money on that, but they want a solution that everyone has a say in and this has been used widely and, like I said, the federal government was fully supportive and understood the need to give that incentive.

Speaker 2:

We'll be right back, stay tuned.

Speaker 3:

If you're enjoying today's Talking Michigan Transportation podcast and would like to learn more about some of the exciting innovations going on at the Michigan Department of Transportation, check out the M YouTube channel for videos featuring project updates, safety initiatives and program highlights. Go to youtubecom, slash michigandot and subscribe.

Speaker 2:

So talk a little bit about you know we talked about your relationship with transit agencies across the state, but two of the bigger ones the rapid, which takes in the city of Grand Rapids and five surrounding cities, and then smart, which takes in a big swath of Southeast Michigan our partners in this and talk about why that is.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, they believed in this too and they felt it was important to learn from this, especially that mode shift question. So they're both providing in kind match for this grant and giving either transit passes or analytics so that we can know that people in the second phase of the survey truly have access to public transit, so that when we ask them, what choice are you going to make You're going to drive your own car, are you going to take transit that we have that option in their toolkit, and so the transit agencies want to understand if that shift is going to happen. Where's it going to happen? Are people? Do they need something different to make that choice to take transit, or do they just need more frequent service? Do they need it in a new area? So they stand to learn a lot from this and they saw the benefit of it, so we're excited when they agreed to be partners.

Speaker 2:

Is there anything you can do? I think this is very difficult to ensure any kind of geographic representation in this kind of survey.

Speaker 1:

We actually ask that in the survey. We do ask for their zip code. We also actually ask for license plate number so we can decide if they qualify for the second phase. But right up front we ask for their zip code so that we make sure that our responses are coming from all over the state. We don't want it to be a lopsided survey. Our run region makes up the majority of responses, especially if that region doesn't make up the majority of the population, so we want to make sure we hear from the far corner of the UP and the thumb and everywhere in between. It's really important to hear all voices because people feel differently depending on their circumstances and we need to understand that and take that into consideration if we make any recommendations from this study.

Speaker 2:

Talk about what you've learned about those diverse needs, when you're talking about those rural areas in the UP or the northern lower peninsula versus those agencies in Grand Rapids and Detroit and Lansing and Flint and Kalamazoo Everything from the lowest funded dialy ride in some rural county to some of those bigger cities and counties it's all very different, right.

Speaker 1:

It is very different. The needs are different and they all have needs and they all have unmet needs, but they look very different. When you're in very rural areas you may have to travel 30 miles to get to a hospital and a transit system may have to travel all the way around the lake to get to the other side to pick up a passenger. So their costs are spread out very differently. Yes, they may be able to use smaller vehicles to do that service, so it's a little more efficient vehicle, but they're traveling a lot of miles. And in urban areas you need large buses and you need more frequent service. So they all have their their barriers. They'll have their difficulties in providing service. They're different but they're still at the bottom line. It's how do they meet the needs of the people in their area? It looks different but it all takes funding right. So anyway we can help with that funding picture so that we can make sure the service is available to the people who need it in a way that is useful to them. People in you know very rural areas. A route service does not make sense for them. It doesn't meet their needs. You know the same way that in a densely populated urban area, a door-to-door service couldn't possibly serve all the people in that area. Again, a puzzle that we have to put together and figure out those needs and listen carefully to what those needs are.

Speaker 2:

What are you seeing hearing from your local agencies about ridership in the wake of the pandemic? We know like everything it, you know it plummeted for obvious reasons. So what are you hearing now?

Speaker 1:

It did. Some areas are coming back really strong. Some are still struggling a little bit. It a lot of it depends on the workforce and the needs and how people accommodated, made accommodations during the pandemic, but overall ridership is coming back, but it's coming back slowly for the most part. However, we're seeing a much more concentrated understanding I guess I'll call it from other agencies, other departments, people who have programs like DHHS, who has a lot of programs where they need people to be able to get access to the goods and services that DHHS can supply and transits the perfect partner in that. So it actually opened those doors and minds more to partnerships that can improve transit access, improve, you know, people getting the services they need and increasing that ridership. So it's really a win-win that I think that we had to think outside the box a little bit because of the pandemic. We had to think outside the box about what we could provide and who really needs the services and who simply wants to take advantage of transit because it's better for the environment. So we're coming back. The ridership is coming back. It's still a struggle and and we're thinking much more outside the box on on how we can, you know, return to to the higher levels of ridership and better meet the needs of people.

Speaker 2:

So, in your ideal world, I guess, what would you hope to to get out of this? I mean, I think you made a very good point that this isn't just about surveying the citizens, it's about educating them too, and I think a lot of them, the ones who are willing to participate and and, and you know, participate thoughtfully, are going to learn some things. But but what's your fondest hope for this?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, my fondest hope is that is, that we not only learn ourselves, learn what people feel comfortable with, but learn the reasons behind that and are able to help educate people on what you know. How do we fund transportation? And the fact that transportation doesn't mean just our roads. It means the entire network, which includes pedestrians, people in transit, buses, those buses themselves, trains, bridges, ferries it's, it's that entire network that helps us get around, and if we can educate people on what that funds, the importance of that funding and how they can impact the decisions about policy issues regarding how we fund those services, you know, being even a small part of figuring that puzzle out will make me really happy. I'll feel like this was a success. And if I can further help the transit industry better prepare for that, you know, potential shift icing on the cake- yeah, I agree once again.

Speaker 2:

Well said, anything else you'd want somebody to know about this. Obviously the questions are going to continue. Everybody hasn't fully engaged so it's a time of year when people might be doing other things. So, yeah, what else would you want someone to know? Yeah, what else would you want someone to know?

Speaker 1:

So I do think that it's important to make it clear that we did have great response to the to the surveys, and we have actually issued our cap on on the initial gift cards for taking the initial survey, but that we still want people to participate. We think it's important for people to be heard and there is an opportunity still to to earn a little more by participating in the second phase of the study will be vetting. You know those that are eligible for that phase, and it's really important to just stay engaged, whether it's through this survey or talking to their legislators. Stay engaged in this. This is a really important topic for our state and I just really appreciate everyone's input so far. And I do want to let people know that we will be issuing a report after phase one. Once we get the data in and and, do you know, learn from that survey data, we'll be issuing a report and then, after phase two, which would be more late in 2025, will issue a final report to this. So encourage people to to keep looking at that website. The website is michigangov slash mi road charge and we will be posting updates out there, so I'm hoping everyone stays engaged you know we're including that link in the show notes too.

Speaker 2:

So thanks, jean. I wish you and the department luck in this endeavor and hope that we all learn a lot when it's done. So thanks a lot thanks, jeff, I appreciate it like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talents of people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debbler, who skillfully edits the audio, jesse Ball, who proofs the content, courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jackie Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

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