Government & Politics

Missouri is stuck with crumbling roads and reluctance to pay for repairs

Interstate 70 is deteriorating. It represents a number transportation needs in Missouri that the state’s politicians have yet to agree on tax hikes to fix.
Interstate 70 is deteriorating. It represents a number transportation needs in Missouri that the state’s politicians have yet to agree on tax hikes to fix. The Kansas City Star

Just about everyone in Missouri politics agrees that the state badly needs an infusion of cash to fix thousands of miles of crumbling highways and scores of increasingly rickety bridges.

Finding consensus on where that money should come from hasn’t come so easy.

Halfway through the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers have yet to coalesce around a plan to make up a $160 million shortfall projected by state transportation officials. If the legislature is unable to come up with a solution, the state transportation budget will shrink so much next year that only a quarter of the state’s 34,000 miles of roads will get proper upkeep.

“Do we want to keep our head in the sand or do we want to move forward?,” said Sen. Doug Libla, a Poplar Bluff Republican.

Libla, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is pushing legislation he’s calling the “2+2+2 Plan.”

It would raise the gas tax two cents a year for three consecutive years, from the current tax of 17.3 cents a gallon to 23.3 cents by 2018. After that, the tax would increase automatically, adjusted for inflation.

Missouri’s Constitution requires voter approval for any increase in taxes or fees of greater than a certain annual limit — roughly $100 million, according to a 2013 report by the state auditor. Because the bill would phase in the gas tax increase in increments, Libla believes it won’t need to be placed on the ballot.

But passing a tax increase — any tax increase — in the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly is a tall order. It could prove especially daunting on the heels of voters overwhelmingly rejecting a sales tax increase of three-quarters of a cent last August that lawmakers hoped could fund highway spending for the next decade.

“Any sort of tax increase would be very difficult to get done,” said House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican. He has directed a pair of committees to study the transportation funding issue.

Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican, recently questioned whether Libla’s bill could pass.

“I’m not likely to vote for a tax increase,” he said. “I believe we’re taxed enough.”

It costs $485 million to maintain all of the state’s roads and bridges in their current condition, without any improvements or expansion.

Starting July 1, 2016, Missouri’s construction budget for transportation will drop to $325 million. Consequently, the state will no longer be able to afford its required financial match in order to receive federal funding. That means those dollars will dry up.

Dave Nichols, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s director, said the plan at that point will be to direct all $325 million of remaining funding to 8,000 miles of primary roads.

The remaining 26,000 miles, Nichols said, will see limited maintenance and will continue to deteriorate.

Even with Libla’s legislation, Nichols said, the long-term funding problem wouldn’t be fixed. It would increase state transportation funding by $160 million a year after the full six cents is added to the gas tax, ensuring Missouri wouldn’t lose federal funds and would “be able to keep our heads above water.”

“It’s not enough money that will allow us to do significant projects, such as reconstruction of Interstate 70,” Nichols said. “But it takes care of the basic needs of keeping our system in a state of good repair, and then we’ll have to come up with solutions about how to pay for major projects.”

Rebuilding the 200-mile span of Interstate 70 between suburban St. Louis and Kansas City is estimated to cost roughly $3 billion. The road was built more than 50 years ago with a life expectancy of 20 years.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, briefly floated the idea of toll roads to help pay to rebuild I-70 across the state. But the idea hasn’t gotten any legislative traction.

Sorting out how to pay for I-70, Diehl said, is key to any transportation funding plan.

“It’s very difficult to address what our long-term transportation solutions are going to be without figuring out what the options are with Interstate 70,” Diehl said. “Everything else is just a Band-Aid.”

But lack of a long-term fix, Nichols said, shouldn’t stop lawmakers from addressing the short-term problems.

Missouri’s transportation budget has fallen dramatically for years, from $1.3 billion in 2009 to around $700 million last year.

The 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.

MoDOT has responded with dramatic cuts, reducing its workforce by 20 percent, shutting down facilities and selling equipment.

It’s time, Libla said, for lawmakers to do their part.

“To the detractors, I’d be interested in hearing their ideas,” Libla said of likely opponents of a gas-tax increase. “What’s your plan to right this ship?”

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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