The History of Roads in Michigan
This article was written by Dorothy G. Pohl, Managing Director for the Ionia County Road Commission, and Norman E. Brown, retired MDOT Act 51 Administrator. It was presented to the Association of Southern Michigan Road Commissions on December 2, 1997 and is reproduced here by permission of its authors.
The Depression of the 1930s was already in its initial stages. With property tax collections plummeting and tax delinquency mounting, there were immediate and widespread demands for a reduction in real estate taxation and for the support of a larger share of local road improvements from more state motor vehicle revenues. These demands led to the passage in 1931 of the McNitt Act, signed into law by Governor Brucker on May 19 of that year. State tax revenues were earmarked to provide the most needed relief demanded by local government. The legislature in 1932 decreed that the entire weight tax be returned to the counties.
To accomplish this change, the Act provided for a 20 percent per year retirement of township roads with a first year appropriation of $2 million from state revenues, increasing $50,000 per year up to $4 million per year. This money was to be apportioned among the counties on a pro rata basis according to township road mileage. Township tax levies for highway purposes were restricted to the retirement of previously incurred debt and to the improvement of local roads within a three-mill tax limit.
The McNitt Act of 1932 was intended primarily as a property tax relief measure, but it brought about major reform in local road administration as well. While county road administration in Michigan had reached a level of competence not surpassed in any state in the country, road building by 1,269 separate township authorities was widely recognized as wasteful and inefficient. The largest township covers but a small area and has such small taxing powers that it is entirely unfit to cope with even a small fraction of the road problems in the highly motorized age of 1931. The following were cited by Frank F. Rogers in the “History of the Michigan State Highway Department” as the advantages of a county road system:
- An equitable plan for raining highway funds, spreading a tax on all of the property of the county including that within the cities. In 1929, over $9 million were raised this way.
- Important roads are made continuous throughout the county and by cooperating with adjoining counties, may become continuous for much greater distances, an important feature in main market roads.
- Money enough is secured to improve the worst and most expensive places on the main county roads—for example, bad hills, marshes and bogs.
- The Board is practically continuous. Except in the case of accident or death, there are always two experienced men on the Board. Only one goes off at a time, while on average, more than one-half of township commissioners go out of office each year.
- The County can afford enough road building equipment to economize on both construction and maintenance.
- It has been satisfactory for now (1933) and all the counties have adopted it.
- It produces results! The counties now have more than 17,000 miles of improved roads—twice the mileage on the state trunkline system.
The McNitt Act provided for the consolidation of the 68,000 miles of township roads into 83 existing county road systems at the rate of one-fifth the total mileage each year for five years. County road systems were increased by the McNitt Act from 17,000 miles to about 85,000 miles, with virtual elimination of previous methods of support for township roads. A large portion of the township road mileage consisted of semi-improved or unimproved roads which did not permit economical maintenance. County road commissions found it necessary to spend considerable sums to improve these roads to a standard high enough to make possible some form of minimum maintenance. Allocations from motor vehicle revenues were insufficient to meet the counties’ heavily-increased road obligations. At the same time, imposition of a statewide 15-mill property tax limitation by constitutional amendment in 1932 made it difficult for the counties to raise local taxes for highway purposes.
As a result, the counties were forced to curtail improvements on their primary road systems in order to maintain local roads. Moreover, elimination of local property taxes for highway purposes created a demand for improvement of the former township roads to standards far beyond those justified—the result of eliminating local financial responsibility. Thus, the tendency was to drain revenues from heavily-traveled county roads to those more lightly-traveled and to reduce standards of improvement on all roads to the level of local roads.
Appointment of motor vehicle revenues for former township roads among the counties on a mileage basis, without taking into account varying traffic loads as between counties, further contributed to unsound dispersion of available highway funds. Under this method of apportionment, amounting to about $57 per mile per year, a mile of road serving one or two farms receives the same allotment of funds as a mile of road in a metropolitan area carrying several thousand vehicles a day. The McNitt Act remained on the statute books until it was incorporated into Act 51 and was never revised except to open road mileage for recertification every two years and through amendment, in 1937, to add to county road systems the entire mileage of streets and alleys in recorded plats of unincorporated subdivisions.
The Dykstra Act of 1931, also signed into law on May 19, made provision for larger state participation in urban street costs. The state was permitted to pay amounts ranging from 50 percent of the cost of trunkline construction in cities of over 50,000 population to 100 percent in cities of less than 20,000 population.
As the Depression approached its lowest ebb, with farm prices touching bottom, urban unemployment rising to record levels, and with many local units defaulting on road bonds issued under the Covert Act, the state legislature attempted to meet the emergency by passage in 1932 of the Horton Act, which drastically revised the distribution of state motor vehicle tax revenues. Although often amended in later years, this emergency legislation remains the keystone in the financial structure of Michigan’s road and street systems. Under the terms of the Act, as subsequently amended, the entire proceeds of the weight tax were allocated to the counties. The tax on passenger cars was reduced from 55 cents per hundred pounds to 35 cents in 1934. In addition, the counties were allocated $6,500,000 yearly from gasoline tax revenues. Of this latter sum, $4 million represented funds for township roads taken over under the McNitt Act and were to be distributed on a mileage basis. Of the weight tax proceeds, along with the remaining $2,550,000 of gasoline tax funds, seven-eighths were to be apportioned among the counties on the basis of weight tax collections (thus reflecting county motor vehicle registrations), while the remaining one-eighth was to be distributed equally among the 83 counties. All of the funds allocated to the counties were earmarked for specific purposes. Excluding the $4 million for township roads, half of the revenues apportioned to each county were to be used for general highway needs and the remaining half distributed according to a fixed schedule of priorities to meet the most pressing needs of the time.
In 1938, a constitutional amendment requiring that motor vehicle tax funds be used exclusively for highway purposes was proposed to Michigan voters and approved in every county in the state.