Government & Politics

Missouri’s struggle to pay for road and bridge repair continues

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Despite years of debate, Missouri lawmakers continue to struggle to sort out how they’ll pay to repair thousands of miles of run-down highways and bridges.

State funds for road and bridge repair have tumbled in recent years, from $1.3 billion in 2009 to an estimated $800 million by 2017.

A solution to that funding shortfall has proven elusive.

Tax increases in the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly appear to be a non-starter. And if a tax boost were to find legislative support, a substantial increase would have to go to Missouri voters — a group that has been even more tax-averse in recent years than lawmakers.

“The people of Missouri have made it very clear they are pretty opposed to raising taxes,” said incoming House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican. “That’s the dilemma we face. Any sort of tax increase is just dead on arrival.”

And all the while, lawmakers are bracing for a tough budget year that could force them to make some difficult choices about where to spend the state’s revenue.

The funding shortfall takes its toll over time, said Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation. Most of the available money has to go toward trying to maintain the quality of roads and bridges at their current level, with little left over to make improvements or expansions.

The result is that although the state has worked hard to keep the quality of its main transportation arteries in tact, only about 70 percent of less-traveled roads in rural Missouri are in good or fair condition. Out of 10,400 bridges around the state, 866 are in poor condition and another 1,200 are weight restricted.

There are more bridges added to the list of those in poor condition every year, McKenna said, than the state is able to remove from the list by making repairs.

“We’re trending in the wrong direction,” he said.

While lawmakers and transportation officials ponder the situation, hope of rebuilding the 200-mile span of Interstate 70 between suburban St. Louis and Kansas City seems like a pipe dream.

The interstate was built more than 50 years ago with a life expectancy of 20 years. But rebuilding it would cost somewhere between $2 billion and $4 billion.

The funding issues stem partly from the end of a bond measure and federal stimulus funds. But Missouri’s 17-cents-per-gallon gas tax is the main culprit. It hasn’t increased in two decades, yet during that time construction costs have risen and vehicles have become more fuel efficient.

Although the funding shortfall is daunting, it could be much worse.

Last year transportation officials worried that funding for roads and bridges could dip to $325 million in 2017, a 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, and low fuel prices have caused people to drive more and thus buy more gasoline. That’s translated into more tax revenue than was expected. Coupled with the passage of a federal transportation bill last year, McKenna said the short-term budget constraints have eased considerably.

But what are the long-term solutions?

State Sen. Dave Schatz, a Republican from Franklin County, said the Senate passed a small gas tax boost during the 2016 session but it never got any traction in the House. Any progress on transportation funding, he said, will have to start with House leadership.

“We did the work by putting together an opportunity for the voters to make the investment in infrastructure,” he said. “That was sent to the House, and they didn’t take that bill up. Next year, the House is going to have to prove they are willing to make an investment in transportation funding.”

Some have argued budget cuts could free up money to invest in road and bridge repair. But in the last few years the Department of Transportation has already pursued cuts, shrinking its workforce by 20 percent, shuttering numerous facilities and selling off equipment. McKenna said that freed up roughly $100 million that was put into road and bridge repair.

Haahr suggested turning some local roads and bridges back over to county governments and providing block grants to help fund their upkeep.

“The state would maintain primary transportation arteries,” he said, “but local roads and bridges, we’d give them back to the counties so they could prioritize what projects are most important to their communities.”

One problem in that approach, McKenna said, is that it could make maintaining local roads more expensive. Supplies and equipment are cheaper for the state because it can purchase things in larger quantities.

The idea of toll roads always faces fierce opposition from the trucking and convenience-store industries and has never gotten any traction. But McKenna said transportation officials are pondering the use of “managed lanes,” which would be toll lanes that are not mandatory for drivers.

If drivers entered a congested part of an interstate, for example, they could choose to remain in the free lanes or pay a toll to use a new lane.

Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said every possible funding solution has to be on the table. If lawmakers can coalesce around a path forward, they need a united front to sell it to the public.

“We’ve got to do a better job of changing the dynamic of viewing our roads and bridges as an asset instead of an expense,” Mehan said. “It’s something we need to invest in.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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