Editorial: Tolls? Gas tax? Let’s at least have a chat about funding Missouri highways

Missouri has the seventh-largest highway system in the nation. Could it look to Kansas’ toll example to fund maintenance?
Missouri has the seventh-largest highway system in the nation. Could it look to Kansas’ toll example to fund maintenance? DAVID EULITT

This is getting old.

Once again, Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican, has boldly put forward a measure that would allow tolls on Interstate 70. And once again, the idea appears to be going nowhere in another session of the do-little Missouri General Assembly.

People can have honest disagreements on toll roads. We get that. But we have two problems here: First, many of us in the Kansas City area have plenty of experience traversing I-70 as it cuts through Kansas. Much of that interstate is a toll road. We’ve noticed that it’s smooth as glass and feels as safe as any high-speed interstate we’ve raced across.

In other words, tolls can work — and work quite well.

And don’t get us started on the perils of driving across Missouri on I-70. It’s like holding our nose and jumping into the deep end every time we make that drive, praying we get to the other end.

Our other concern about the General Assembly’s approach to highway construction is more basic. If tolls aren’t the answer, then what is? A higher gas tax? That’s inevitable, but lawmakers in recent years have been loath to go there.

The state could borrow much of the money to maintain Missouri’s seventh-largest highway system. But no one’s talking about that, either.

Instead, we get mostly crickets from Gov. Eric Greitens and lawmakers about one of the most pressing issues facing the state. Greitens said little about highways during the campaign, and he has hardly mentioned the issue now that he’s in office. This is an astonishing lack of leadership on a foundational issue, even for a new governor.

Meantime, the cost of rebuilding any road or bridge anywhere in the state keeps going up. It’s more expensive this year than last, and on it goes.

If you’re waiting for President Donald Trump to bail out Missouri and Kansas with his much-ballyhooed $1 trillion infrastructure package — his “new program of national rebuilding” — go ahead and continue tapping your foot. The White House has not offered details about a promised plan to rebuild roads, bridges and utilities. And the president’s budget proposal actually cuts funding for some infrastructure programs.

Battles over highway funding go back generations in Missouri. It’s not that lawmakers object to good roads. On the contrary, they’ll pay lip service to the value of quality highways, what they mean for business and how Missouri can’t get by without them.

The problem is pulling the trigger on the money to pay for it all. Missouri’s low-tax culture goes back generations, too, and it explains why these things are so tough to accomplish. Missouri’s gasoline tax, for instance, stands at 17 cents a gallon. That amount hasn’t budged a penny since 1996. The tax ranks 43rd nationally, and some other states levy gas taxes three times higher.

We’re going nowhere fast. At a minimum, Missouri needs to have a conversation about where the state is headed and what to do about I-70. A second bill Corlew is sponsoring would do that by creating yet another task force.

Yes, we know — another committee. We did one of those a few years ago. But with a new governor and a new president, maybe it’s necessary. Passing this would be better than walking away from the 2017 session with absolutely nothing.

But not by much.