How Missouri should pay for road and bridge repairs has become the most hotly contested issue on the Aug. 5 statewide ballot.
Voters will be asked whether to amend the state’s constitution to increase the sales tax by three-fourths of a cent in order to fund repairs. The tax increase, which would be the largest in Missouri’s history, would last for at least 10 years. During that time, the tax on gasoline would be frozen, and new toll roads would be prohibited.
Bankrolling the proposal are groups and businesses that stand to benefit from the roughly $5.4 billion estimated to be raised over the life of the tax: highway construction contractors, engineering firms, labor unions and concrete and asphalt producers.
“Missourians understand that our roads and bridges are deteriorating,” said Jewell Patek, campaign manager for the group supporting the amendment, Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs. “We need to make our roads and bridges as safe as possible, and we don’t have the revenue to do that.”
Lining up on the other side of the issue is a hodgepodge of groups from across the political spectrum, arguing that the impact of a sales tax increase falls disproportionately on those with lower incomes. In some parts of the state, when local taxes are added, the overall sales tax would increase to more than 11 cents.
They also complain that those who cause the most damage to the state’s transportation infrastructure — heavy commercial trucks — would not contribute to their repair.
“This tax would fall most heavily on those least able to afford it,” Elaine Blodgett, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, said in a recent statement.
Without a new source of revenue, officials at the Missouri Department of Transportation say they soon won’t have money to adequately maintain roads and bridges, much less undertake any major new projects.
Over the past five years, Missouri’s construction budget for roads and bridges has fallen from about $1.3 billion annually to $685 million this year. It is projected to dip to $325 million by the 2017 budget.
Historically, the state has primarily funded highway maintenance through the gasoline tax, which at 17.3 cents per gallon has not been adjusted in 20 years. But that revenue has flattened out, partly because of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Additionally, federal highway funding also has become more uncertain.
Proponents say they’ve explored the idea of tolls or a gas tax hike to raise the needed funding, but neither is politically feasible at this time. They add that unlike the gas tax, funds from the higher sales tax could be used for projects beyond bridges and roads, such as mass transit.
“We started talking to Missourians in 2008 about this crisis, and we found that there is no interest in doubling the gas tax,” Patek said.
The state Department of Transportation released earlier this month a list of proposed projects that could benefit from the funding increase.
The widening of Interstate 70 across Missouri remains the most expensive item. It would receive $500 million from the new tax revenues, with the rest of the $1.5 billion cost coming from existing revenue sources.
A proposed streetcar line in Kansas City would be eligible for $124 million in funding, contingent upon approval of $356 million in local funding.
Ninety percent of the money raised by the tax increase, an estimated $480 million annually, would go toward state transportation initiatives. Ten percent, or an estimated $54 million annually, would be split among cities and counties for transportation projects.
For a list of projects to be funded with proceeds from the sales tax, visit www.modot.org/movingforward.