Lawmakers head into the 2016 legislative session once again set to debate how Missouri will find the money it needs to fix thousands of miles of crumbling highways and rickety bridges.
Hopes aren’t high the debate will translate into a solution.
“There’s no consensus in the legislature or in the state as a whole,” said House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot, a Lee’s Summit Republican. “The short answer is, I’m not sure we’re there yet in terms of finding a long-term fix.”
That sentiment is shared by Cierpiot’s counterpart in the Senate.
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“Missourians are going to unfortunately start seeing bridge closings and rougher roads,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican. “We’re the Show-Me State, and I think that’s what it will take to realize we have a problem.”
State funds for road and bridge repair have tumbled in recent years, from $1.3 billion in 2009 to an estimated $700 million by 2017. Making up that shortfall has proved to be a tall order.
Passing a tax increase — any tax increase — in the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly is an uphill fight. That’s especially true with the 2016 elections looming on the horizon.
Even if a tax hike did clear the legislature, any substantial increase would have to go to voters. Last year Missourians overwhelmingly rejected a sales tax bump that lawmakers hoped could fund highway spending for the next decade.
Some have discussed following Kansas’ lead and turning Interstate 70 into a toll road to raise much-needed cash, but the idea faces fierce opposition from the trucking and convenience-store industries and has never gotten any traction.
Others say the state should streamline its transportation budget to put more money into roads. But the Missouri Department of Transportation has already cut its workforce by 20 percent, shuttered numerous facilities and sold off equipment.
With a $700 million budget, the state is able to maintain the 33,000 miles of roads and bridges in their current condition, said Roberta Broeker, chief financial officer for the Missouri Department of Transportation. But there is no money, she said, for any improvements or expansion.
“We can take care of the system we currently have, but what do you do about roads and bridges that need to be replaced?” Broeker said. “The big thing we’re struggling with is the safety of our roadway system. Systematic safety improvements, like adding a shoulder in rural roads, are really difficult to get done with the amount of money we have.”
That also means rebuilding the 200-mile span of Interstate 70 between suburban St. Louis and Kansas City — estimated to cost roughly $3 billion — is out of the question. The road was built more than 50 years ago with a life expectancy of 20 years.
The funding drop comes partly from the end of a bond measure and federal stimulus funds. Meanwhile, Missouri’s 17-cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t increased in almost two decades. During that time, construction costs have risen and vehicles have become more fuel efficient.
The situation sounds bad, Broeker said, but it’s actually an improvement from projections earlier this year.
The state was expecting to be stuck with a roughly $325 million budget next year, a dire situation that would have left Missouri no longer able to afford its required financial match in order to receive federal funding.
But an improving economy has meant more revenue from the taxes on vehicle sales, Broeker said, and low fuel prices have caused people to drive more and buy more gasoline. That’s translated into more tax revenue than was expected, easing the short-term budget constraints considerably.
“Vehicle miles traveled are hitting new highs,” she said. “So that means after years of decline, gas tax revenues are up. That’s a really good thing.”
Congress finally agreeing on a federal highway funding bill also helps, Kehoe said. The legislation boosts highway and transit spending by $305 billion and assures states that federal help will be available for major projects for the next five years.
“The five-year re-authorization at least gives us a funding foundation that allows us the chance to go out and talk to Missourians about the problems we face and the long-term funding bind that we’re in,” Kehoe said.
Stephen Miller, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, said the federal bill does give Missouri some degree of certainty regarding the federal money for which it is eligible. However, he said, it does not “solve the transportation woes for Missouri.”
“At least at the federal level we have a guaranteed revenue source for the next five years — and that is worth celebrating,” Miller said. “But we need to keep any celebration in perspective since there is much work yet to be done.”
Miller is supporting a small gas tax increase proposed by several Missouri lawmakers. That idea has also won the support of Gov. Jay Nixon.
Instead of talking about boosting road funding, lawmakers should be looking for ways to trim how much the state needs to spend, said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican.
“In every other state program, when the resources do not match the responsibility, we rein in what the responsibilities are,” he said. “Missouri has 33,000 miles of road being maintained by the state, where states of similar size have 12,000 to 16,000 miles.”
Missouri’s constitution would prohibit the state from mandating local government pick up the tab for any roads. But Silvey said, “we wouldn’t be mandating anything.”
“Nobody says those roads have to exist at all,” he said. “We talk a lot about the free market. Well, if the demand isn’t there to support that road, maybe it shouldn’t be paved. The county could decide whether it would be maintained or not. We’re not going to do it anymore, but if you want to, then have at it. If not, so be it.”
Broeker said county transportation budgets are even more strapped than Missouri’s, and the state can’t simply abandon its roads or bridges. It’s a safety issue, she said.
“Somebody has to take over maintenance, otherwise there is a liability issue for the state,” Broeker said. “The notion of simply abandoning it isn’t feasible. You can make a decision to maintain things at different levels, but that already happens.”
But Silvey, who admits his idea stands little chance of success in 2016, said raising taxes to pump more revenue into the system isn’t feasible either.
“We’ve put the issue to voters, and they’ve rejected it,” he said. “We should listen to the voters and pare back what we’re doing. We have that conversation with every other state program — I don’t know why we can’t have it on roads.”