Missouri voters have rejected — yet again — a credible plan to improve the state’s roads, by increasing the gas tax.
The decision is disappointing and potentially dangerous. It delays the day of reckoning for the state, which will see its roads continue to deteriorate.
And the decision actually saves drivers little or no money, since the cost of the tax — $19 a year for 15-gallon-a-week drivers in the first year — would likely have been far less than the cost of repairs, delays and ongoing frustration in Missouri.
It’s also puzzling. The gas tax increase, known as Proposition D, was endorsed by scores of Democrats and Republicans, including Gov. Mike Parson, who campaigned vigorously for the measure. You don’t often find the Missouri AFL-CIO on the same side as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, yet both supported the tax.
The state’s fuel tax hasn’t been raised since the mid-1990s. Adjusted for inflation, gas is cheaper today than it was a decade ago. Missouri has the nation’s seventh-largest highway system but ranks 46th in the nation for revenue per mile.
Some voters may have been confused by, or worried about, use of the revenue for the Missouri Highway Patrol. But the tax would have eventually provided millions for road and bridge repairs, including 46,000 miles of highway pavement.
A general anti-tax sentiment may have played a role, too. But roads are not free. A gas tax, while regressive, would have represented a user fee of sorts. Still, voters said no.
It would be tempting for the state’s leaders to walk away from this problem. Indeed, following Tuesday’s vote, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s director said all the right things about doing more with less.
“We will continue to do the best we can with what we have for as long as we can,” Patrick McKenna said. “Setting priorities among the many equally important transportation projects will be a tough job with limited resources, but we’ll continue to work closely with planning partners, local communities and customers to address Missouri’s most pressing needs.”
Cities and counties — and their taxpayers — may need to pick up some of the slack. That will be easier in urban areas than rural counties, a fact many voters outside of the cities may have forgotten.
But the state’s lawmakers and politicians must continue to explore ways to increase funding for the state’s roads. Like education, road building and maintenance are core government functions.
We hope the governor can take the lead here. He should work with the legislature next year to tackle this issue once again, perhaps with a combination of taxes dedicated to additional highway funding.
Missouri can’t wait until its roads turn to dirt before it acts. The voters’ choice Tuesday was the most disappointing outcome of the midterm elections.