Government & Politics

Missouri’s highway needs far exceed the dollars available, transportation officials say

The Missouri Department of Transportation is replacing the U.S. 40 bridge over the Blue River along Interstate 70 east of downtown. On Wednesday, Clarkson Construction Co. workers were setting forms on a pier near the river.
The Missouri Department of Transportation is replacing the U.S. 40 bridge over the Blue River along Interstate 70 east of downtown. On Wednesday, Clarkson Construction Co. workers were setting forms on a pier near the river. The Kansas City Star

State transportation officials warned for years that one day Missouri would no longer be able to afford to fix its roads and bridges.

That day, they believe, has nearly arrived. And state lawmakers admit there’s no easy solution on the table.

Missouri Department of Transportation director Dave Nichols painted a bleak picture Wednesday of the future of the state’s highway system.

In two years, he said in a public presentation to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, the state transportation budget will shrink so much that only a tiny fraction of the state’s 34,000 miles of roads will get proper upkeep.

The rest — totaling more than 26,000 miles of roadways across the state — will get minimal attention. In Kansas City, that would include the Broadway Bridge extension, Blue Parkway and Bruce R. Watkins Drive.

Rides will get a lot rougher and congestion will increase dramatically, Nichols said. Eventually, many roads and bridges may become so unsafe they will have to be closed.

“We will patch potholes. We will do repair on traffic signals. We’ll plow the snow and mow grass,” Nichols said. “But over time, these roads are going to deteriorate.”

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

By 2017, Missouri’s construction budget for transportation will drop to $325 million. That same year, 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.

“It’s devastating,” said Missouri Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, an Odessa Republican and chairman of the House transportation committee.

It will take the entire $325 million budget to keep 8,000 miles of priority roads in their current condition, Nichols said. Nearly all of Missouri’s major roadways are on that list. Every county in the state has at least one primary roadway.

About 73 percent of traffic is handled by those 8,000 miles of roads and bridges, Nichols said. However, the remaining roads include some significant urban routes that handle huge volumes of traffic — in some cases, 50,000 cars a day.

“This is a transportation triage,” said Stephen Miller, chairman of the highway commission. “We’re left to make tough choices just like they do in the emergency room about the most critical patients.”

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

The drop can be partially blamed on the end of a bond measure and federal stimulus funds. But the ongoing problem is Missouri’s 17-cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t increased in almost two decades. Meanwhile, construction costs have risen and automobiles have become more fuel efficient.

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

The savings have helped, but “we’re at the bone. There’s no more to cut,” said Roberta Broeker, chief financial officer for MoDOT. “The only place left to cut is the construction program.”

Unless the state takes steps to increase revenue, “in 2022, we will run out of cash,” Broeker said. “We simply run out of cash.”

Missouri has the seventh largest highway system in the country, Nichols said, but it ranks 46th nationally in funding per mile. Kansas spends roughly five times as much per mile on highway and bridge construction than Missouri, he said.

Missouri lawmakers thought they had found a solution last year, approving a constitutional amendment that would have increased Missouri’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent for 10 years.

The tax boost would have raised an estimated $5.4 billion over its lifetime.

But voters soundly rejected that plan in August, and Kolkmeyer admits there is no Plan B.

“I’ve heard a lot of proposals,” he said, “but nothing concrete.”

There are currently no bills filed in either the House or Senate pertaining to transportation funding.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, said that because voters rejected the legislature’s proposal, Gov. Jay Nixon needs to bring ideas to the table that could win the support of Missourians.

“If there is a way the people of Missouri prefer to address transportation, then I will support that,” Dempsey said on the opening day of the 2015 legislative session. “There needs to be a lot of public dialogue, and there’s no better person to do that than the governor of Missouri.”

Nixon, a Democrat teamed with a Republican-dominated legislature, has floated the idea of implementing tolls on Interstate 70 to help fund a $3 billion rebuild across the state. Nichols said that would free up around $60 million a year in construction funding that could be used on other roadways around the state.

Nixon’s office said in an email Wednesday that the governor would spell out his transportation priorities in a speech next week.

Lawmakers could also raise the state’s gas tax, among the lowest in the nation. But that would have to once again go before Missouri’s voters, who in recent years have been highly averse to any tax increase.

Every 2 cents that the gasoline tax is increased would generate roughly $80 million annually in additional revenue, Nichols said.

But one of the problems with asking voters to increase taxes, Kolkmeyer said, is that most don’t believe Missouri’s roadways are crumbling.

“It’s hard for voters to support a tax increase when 85 percent of our roads are in good condition,” he said.

The condition of Missouri’s roads is just “a veneer,” Nichols said. MoDOT has managed to keep rides smooth on the state’s roadways, but funding shortfalls have prevented the department from doing needed repairs on the underlying structures.

“The roads feel like they are in good shape,” he said, “but they aren’t going to last long.”

The highway commission will meet again next month to further discuss the $325 million spending plan. Unless lawmakers come up with more revenue, there are few other options left, Miller said.

“The reality is this is the type of system that you’re going to get for $325 million.”

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

The details

To see maps of which roads will be affected by MoDOT’s plan, go to www.modot.org/toughchoicesahead.

Annual cost to maintain Missouri roads and bridges without improvements: $485 million

Projected money available by 2017: $325 million

Missouri’s transportation budget in 2009: $1.3 billion

State road spending last year: $700 million

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