Opinion

Steve Kraske: Eric Greitens misses opportunity by staying mum on how to fund Missouri roads

Capitol insiders say the signs are clear that the state won’t seek to tackle higher fuel taxes this year to fund Missouri’s deteriorating system. But with urgent needs looming, the governor’s silence could prove costly.
Capitol insiders say the signs are clear that the state won’t seek to tackle higher fuel taxes this year to fund Missouri’s deteriorating system. But with urgent needs looming, the governor’s silence could prove costly. AP

Not one word.

Not a single phrase or reference or even a hint of what Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens wants to do about the state’s underfunded highway network.

That’s what we got last week from the new governor during his first State of the State address: a complete and total shutout on one of the most pressing issues facing the state.

At last count, Missouri has 34,000 miles of highways and 10,400 bridges. Its highway system is the seventh-largest in the nation. Fuel taxes haven’t budged since 1996, and needs are blooming.

Asked this week to elaborate, Greitens’ office declined comment.

There’s a lot that can be read into the governor’s silence. It certainly suggests that there will be no major push in 2017 to raise fuel taxes. Without the governor aboard to spearhead such a movement, any such effort is deader than the Chiefs’ Super Bowl prospects this year.

Greitens’ reticence is only one hurdle. In the state Capitol, tension exists between the House and Senate when it comes to who’s going to lead the push for the next fuel-tax increase.

Senate leaders say they tried last year and sent a bill over to the House calling for a 5.9 cents-a-gallon boost, only to see House leaders kill it.

One explanation: 2016 was an election year, and Republicans who control the House weren’t eager to seek re-election shortly after raising taxes. But make no mistake: The issue has bipartisan backing.

“The House fumbled the ball,” said state Sen. Doug Libla, a Poplar Bluff Republican who last year chaired the Senate transportation committee and pushed for the fuel-tax increase. “Yet they don’t have a plan.”

Missouri lives up to its reputation as a low-tax state when it comes to fuel taxes. At 17 cents a gallon, Missouri ranked 43rd nationally in a 2015 list. Pennsylvania is at nearly 51 cents a gallon, California is at 45 cents, Connecticut at 43.

With more cars and trucks on the roads than ever before, and with the cost of road construction always on the march, you can begin to sense the Missouri Department of Transportation’s frustration.

By the way, rebuilding Interstate 70 across the state is a separate issue entirely. It’s a multibillion-dollar project that will require another source of funding, such as tolls. A serious conversation on that intensely contentious issue has barely begun.

Former Gov. Jay Nixon pounded on the highway funding issue in his last two State of the State addresses. “We’ve also got too many bad roads and rickety bridges,” he said last year. “We all know it, and it’s time to act. Roads aren’t free. Last time I checked, nobody was giving away concrete and asphalt.”

Greitens was fuzzy on this issue during the campaign, as I pointed out in October.

I’ve also written that new governors face such a torrent of decisions that they deserve a little slack as they get up and running.

The new governor may still be forming his views on all this. But he is at his most potent politically right now, and gas taxes are tough things to pass, as any such boost will also require a vote of the people.

Kicking the can down the road is costly. The system is deteriorating before our eyes. I-70 remains ridiculously dangerous. Big decisions await.

Time to step on the gas, governor.

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske

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