Ignored. Underfunded. Unsafe.
Indeed, the state’s roads and bridges have so many critical needs that, by the state’s own estimate, addressing them would require more than $800 million per year in additional funding.
The Star asked its panel of Missouri Influencers — dozens of leaders from across the state — for their thoughts on how important an issue infrastructure should be in this election year.
Of the 40 Influencers who responded to the first survey, 92.5 percent said infrastructure was important or very important as an issue for candidates. They also identified education and the economy and jobs as among the most critical issues.
In terms of what’s most important, Jason Grill, a Missouri media consultant, said that “without a doubt, it’s infrastructure.”
“Missouri needs to improve its overall infrastructure now and look toward the future,” Grill said. “Roads, bridges, buildings, transportation assets and options and energy generation are key.”
Influencers also identified infrastructure as a necessary driver to achieve statewide economic growth. Without investment, some advocates worry Missouri’s troubled infrastructure could instead drive growth elsewhere.
The Missouri Influencer Series brings together readers and high-profile Missourians for a conversation about the biggest issues confronting the state. From now through this fall, The Star will be asking its readers and the panel of 51 Influencers to weigh in on these challenges.
What’s the problem?
Ask Missourians and almost no one will heap praise on the massive state highway system. By just about every account, Missouri’s roads are in trouble.
Basic improvements to safety, including adding highway shoulders and rumble strips and replacing interchanges, would eat up a third of the $825 million in additional funding the Missouri Department of Transportation, or MoDOT, says it needs.
Improving Missouri’s highways would be a massive undertaking merely because of its size. Missouri has more highway miles — 33,856 — than any of the eight states it borders, and it brings in the least revenue per mile.
And it’s not just bridges and roads, Influencers said.
“Our infrastructure has been ignored for too long,” said Duke Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. “... Water, sewer systems and other utilities need work to prevent more expensive emergency work or major failure.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state a D+ for its roads and an overall C- for its infrastructure, including water, aviation and dams.
“Infrastructure and transportation are critical to the Missouri economy,” said Richard Martin, director of governmental affairs for JE Dunn Construction and a former political consultant. “Interstates 35, 44 and 70 are in terrible condition yet crucial to interstate commerce. MoDOT is woefully underfunded and these roads therefore have not been maintained to standards necessary to provide safe travel. And our bridges are in equally poor unsafe conditions.”
The issue is funding. Most of MoDOT’s revenue for roads comes from a 17 cents-per-gallon gas tax. Oklahoma is the only border state with such a low gas tax, and Missouri has more highway miles than any of its neighbors.
Inflation and the rise of fuel-efficient cars has knocked a dent in what Missouri can raise through its gas tax. The purchasing power of the tax now effectively equals just 8 cents per gallon, according to MoDOT.
“Several of Missouri’s surrounding states also benefit from additional revenue sources for transportation like tolling and general sales taxes,” MoDOT says in a guide to transportation funding.
Part of the issue is the sheer size of Missouri’s highway system. Missouri annexed more than 10,000 miles of what other state highway systems would consider county roads in the 1950s in exchange for a 1-cent increase in the gas tax, said MoDOT spokesman Bob Brendel.
“By in large those are low-volume routes that probably don’t get the level of investment they need, but we still have to plow snow on those routes, and you still have to mow the right of way,” Brendel said. “And regardless of pavement treatments, there’s operations costs that go with it for sure.”
What’s at stake?
The state of Missouri’s road arteries is “dire,” Grill said.
Jane Dueker, another Influencer who is an attorney, radio host and former political adviser, said infrastructure — along with education — is at a “crisis level.”
“We cannot keep kicking the can down the road and expect to move our state forward,” Dueker said.
Some stretches on the state’s interstate highways date back to the 1950s, according to Missouri’s 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force, a group assembled to study and give input on infrastructure issues.
“Moreover, a large portion of state-maintained bridges have surpassed their 50-year design lives,” the group’s report says.
Rough roads and congestion cost Kansas City drivers more than $1,300 a year in vehicle operating costs, delays and accidents, according to TRIP, a national transportation research group.
Bridgette Williams, executive director of the Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, said Missouri’s roads have been “neglected for so long that our roads are now rated among the worst in the nation.” She called the issue a “crisis mode.”
Her organization has paid for 15 to 20 billboards along I-70 and U.S. 50 urging the state to upgrade its roadways.
But beyond safety, some argue Missouri’s roads are an issue of economic viability.
“Improvement in infrastructure brings jobs to Missouri and builds the economy even if funded by taxpayers’ money,” said Jennifer Lowry, an Influencer who is chief toxicologist at Children’s Mercy.
What can be done?
Despite being the very people who would have to pay more at the pump, readers and Influencers alike pushed for an increase to the gas tax.
One such hike passed by the Missouri General Assembly is expected to be on the ballot for voter approval this fall. It would boost the gas tax to 27 cents per gallon over four years.
Scott Charton, CEO of Charton Communications and an Influencer, said candidates for office should support the gas tax.
Lowry said candidates should “discuss tough policies to address infrastructure.”
“Improvement in infrastructure cannot happen without more revenue to the cities, counties and the state,” Lowry said. “Decreasing taxes brings in fewer funds for community whether it be a neighborhood or Missouri.”
The state also cut individual and corporate taxes this year. Very little of that general revenue money is used to fund transportation.
To some, a tax increase is less palatable. Influencer Gwen Grant, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said candidates should discuss how to find funds for infrastructure “with minimal to no tax increases.”
Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library and co-founder of the Show-Me Institute, called for offering “voters a modest increase in the gas tax targeted directly at the most heavily traveled roads first and the list of the most dangerous bridges a close second.”
Also, Kemper said, Kansas City officials should “redirect streetcar and light rail funding to bus rapid transit, high-tech jitney and eventually driverless car logistics first for schoolchildren and second to connect poorer ZIP codes to jobs.”
Dueker encouraged the state to lessen the burden of miles and miles of county roads.
“Our state highway system is just too big for our state to handle,” she said. “Lesser traveled roads need to be deeded back to the local governments for maintenance.”
Others favored toll roads. Where I-70 runs through eastern Kansas, drivers have to pay tolls.
Lowry and other Influencers said infrastructure would be a boost to Missouri’s economy.
“People are looking for community improvement. We want to get outside and interact with each other safely. Transit systems decrease congestion in our cities. Sidewalks and parks allow neighbors to interact with each other. Bridges and roads allow us to see Missouri and increase our definition of community,” Lowry said.
She added, “Sometimes, in order to move forward, one has to take a step back and realize the importance of human interaction instead of the stuff that interferes in our lives.”
We want to hear from you
When Missourians go to the polls this fall, jobs will undoubtedly be on their minds. Missouri’s gross domestic product grew just 1.1 percent from 2016 to 2017, lagging behind states like Colorado and Texas and large swaths of both coasts. But its unemployment rate is at its lowest since before 2008. We want to hear from you on the Missouri economy.