Gasoline prices are plummeting. Missouri officials are studying the use of tolls on Interstate 70. And Kansas highway funds are being drained to pay for other expenses.
How much we pay to drive once again is a much-discussed topic that begs resolutions in Congress as well as in Missouri and Kansas statehouses.
Studies show that aging infrastructure creates traffic bottlenecks and damages vehicles, imposing tremendous financial costs on Americans.
Here’s a road map for making smart decisions to improve highways and streets while more fairly dunning drivers for making those upgrades.
Increase the federal gasoline tax
It’s sat stagnant at 18.4 cents a gallon for just over 20 years. Obviously, tax revenues have far been outstripped by the rising costs to repair U.S. roads. Congress must raise the tax substantially.
Motorists wouldn’t notice the upward bump as much as they would have in past years. The average cost of regular gasoline has plummeted from about $4 a gallon in early 2013 to about $2.50. And it’s lower still in our area.
In recent years, Republican leaders have been wary about approving a tax increase, though President Barack Obama has been guilty of not pushing hard enough for one either.
However, that mindset appears to be changing among some in Congress because of the crumbling infrastructure argument: Not repairing roads causes a drain on the economy that exceeds the cost of keeping highways and streets in good conditions. Voila — a gas tax can be sold as an investment in a stronger economy.
For example, GOP Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is making that case as he supports more than doubling his state’s gas tax.
Study the use of tolls on selected Missouri highways
In a positive step, Gov. Jay Nixon recently asked state transportation officials to review making Interstate 70 a toll road between the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.
We’d go a step beyond that, and require Missouri to look at the pros and cons of imposing tolls on other much-used roads, such as Interstate 44.
Missouri has long struggled to keep up with needed repairs because it has one of the nation’s lowest state fuel taxes — at 17.3 cents a gallon (Kansas is a bit higher, at 24 cents). Unfortunately, Missouri voters have not approved previous attempts to boost the tax.
And in August they overwhelmingly turned down a general sales tax increase that would have paid for transportation improvements.
Missourians can’t keep ignoring the real needs of improving this crucial infrastructure. The state report ought to lay out how much the tolls might be and exactly what kinds of improvements motorists would see.
Stop raiding the Kansas highway fund
Last week Gov. Sam Brownback announced plans to help balance the state budget by diverting almost $100 million from the highway fund. As a consequence, less money will be available to maintain Kansas roads.
Income-tax cuts approved by the Legislature and Brownback have decimated general revenues since taking effect in early 2013.
Even worse financial problems are on the horizon in 2015, opening the potential to further jeopardize the safety of the state’s highway system.
State officials should stop this nonsense. The best way to do that is to reverse the income-tax cuts.
Kansans will get the quality of roads they deserve. Continuing to take money from the highway fund will lead to years, even decades, of poorer roads.
That’s a bleak future that Brownback and the Legislature must not allow to come true.