Local Columnists

Steve Kraske: Candidates need to say more about how to solve Missouri’s road mess

Missouri needs a lot of road work, but it has little money to pay for it.
Missouri needs a lot of road work, but it has little money to pay for it. dpulliam@kcstar.com

I’m guessing that Mike Kehoe was just trying to say something positive.

“I was happy that all five candidates realized there’s a problem,” said the Missouri Senate majority leader and former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Yes, realization and comprehension are fine first steps when it comes to finding ways to fund Missouri’s highways. But the five Republican candidates for Missouri governor (now minus Bob Dixon, who has dropped out) pretty much punted at their first joint forum this month when it came to ideas for patching up the state’s beleaguered road budget. It’s one of the most straightforward, yet politically treacherous, issues out there.

For the record, likely Democratic nominee Chris Koster is doing no better, based on a statement from his campaign.

The shorthand here: The state highway budget is in shambles. Missouri ranks 47th in funding nationally, yet has the seventh-largest road system.

“That’s a big gap,” Kehoe said.

One more stat: In 2009, the Missouri Department of Transportation had a $1.3 billion construction budget. Next year it dips to $320 million, a total so dismal that the state won’t qualify for its share of federal matching funds.

“That’s creating a lot of problems,” Kehoe said.

Especially for Republican candidates for governor, who are seeking to appeal to the most conservative, tax-averse set of voters in the state, who turn out for primary elections. Yet this problem will require higher taxes or fees or something. There’s no getting around it.

It will be a higher gas tax at the pump; or a higher general sales tax, which voters rejected resoundingly in 2014; or converting I-70 into a toll road, not unlike the Kansas Turnpike.

There are problems with each. Higher-mileage cars make the gas tax less than dependable. Voters are signaling they don’t want higher sales taxes, which add 10 percent to purchases in some areas. And tolls are just a tough sell.

But this is where leadership comes in, and this is why I wanted to hear how a new batch of candidates for the state’s highest office would field a question on road funding from Kehoe, the debate moderator. He had signaled that he would ask about highway funding. No one was caught off guard.

Still, the responses were less than stimulating. John Brunner said the money could be found by cutting spending and finding “efficiencies.” But that won’t drum up $1 billion. Not even close. Eric Greitens also suggested a crackdown on wasteful spending.

“I believe in accountability,” he said. But he offered no solution.

Peter Kinder and Catherine Hanaway came closer. Kinder briefly mentioned toll roads. He reminded the audience that the last time the state raised its gas tax was under a conservative governor, John Ashcroft. His point: You can be a conservative and invest in highways.

Hanaway offered the most concrete idea. Fund the Highway Patrol with general revenue, not the gas tax, she said. That would free up $200 million a year for roads — a start.

These candidates are in the preening stage. Voters and journalists will have to draw them out.

“I would’ve loved somebody to say, ‘Here’s an idea, bang, bang, bang,’ ” said Kehoe. “I guess I didn’t hear that.”

No, you didn’t, senator. But the good news is we’ve got eight months before the primary.