Missouri’s highways need help. Voters nixed gas tax hike, but lawmakers can act

Ideas for funding Missouri’s woefully underfunded highway and bridge network are beginning to emerge, and Gov. Mike Parson and lawmakers should deal with this most pressing issue next year.

Voters, of course, rejected Propositon D this month and its proposed 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the fuel tax. The outcome was confounding. The proposal was modest. It was desperately needed. Parson, a Republican, backed it. And voters thoughtfully backed other initiatives, such as a minimum wage increase and a proposal to clean up Missouri government.

But defeated it was, and now Parson and the GOP-dominated General Assembly must take the matter into their own hands and forge ahead. At nearly 34,000 miles, Missouri has the country’s seventh-largest state highway system. With more than 10,000 bridges, the state has the sixth-most in the nation.

And yet, the 17-cents-a-gallon gas tax hasn’t been raised since the mid-1990s. Missourians have a well-earned reputation for favoring low taxes, but the state’s residents also have an obligation to maintain such an essential public asset.

Fortunately, a road map already exists in the form of a comprehensive report issued in January that was prepared by the 23-member 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force. State Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican, chaired the group.

Step one of the road map is to deploy what the task force called an “immediate impact” investment. Propositon D, which would have eventually raised $437 million a year, was the original idea. But now lawmakers are discussing the need for incremental gas tax increases without a vote of the people that would fall under the threshold of the insidious Hancock Amendment, the state’s tax-limitation measure.

State Sen. Wayne Wallingford, a Cape Girardeau Republican, is smartly suggesting a series of 2-cent boosts, each generating roughly $80 million a year.

“We own the roads and bridges, and we have to take care of them,” he said.

Lawmakers would be wise to also consider other revenue-generators such as electric vehicle and hybrid vehicle fees. Owners of all-electric vehicles pay no fuel taxes, but still rely on state roadways. They could also consider a boost to vehicle registration and driver’s licensing fees. MODOT estimates that a $25 registration fee increase would generate $70 million a year. A corresponding increase in driver’s license fees would generate $22 million a year.

In fact, lawmakers should alter the state’s vehicle registration fee schedule so that it’s based on how many miles a car gets per gallon instead of the archaic horsepower standard now in place. Missouri ranks as the only state that still relies on the vehicle horsepower standard.

Lawmakers also could siphon off a portion of the internet sales tax for highways, as the report recommends, or begin offering optional express-lane packages to relieve congestion and generate revenue. Imposing tolls on major bridges should be considered and so should mileage-based road user fees.

In other words, plenty of options exist. And we haven’t even discussed the need to boost funding for other modes of transportation such as airports, ports and streetcars.

Implementing these changes will require political courage in a red state. But Missouri already is falling behind on maintenance to the tune of $825 million a year. With 2019 stacking up as a non-election year, it’s time to strike. The governor and lawmakers should understand that the ball is now in their court.