Herald-Whig View

Missouri Legislature urgently needs to act on road fund solution

Posted: Apr. 19, 2017 11:40 am

ANOTHER session of the Missouri General Assembly is nearing an end, and once again lawmakers have made no progress on repairing the state's deteriorating roads and bridges.

The Missouri House last week overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to let voters decide whether to raise the state's gasoline tax by nearly 6 cents a gallon in 2018. Only 51 of 154 House members supported the amendment, even though lawmakers and transportation officials have long complained about inadequate funding.

The measure was based on a 5.9-cent fuel tax hike proposed last year by Republican state Sen. Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff that passed the Senate by a 21-10 vote but was never called for consideration in the House.

In fact, three times in the previous four years legislation to raise the fuel tax has been proposed, only to fail to make it through both the House and Senate. Voters outside Northeast Missouri in 2014 also defeated Amendment 7, which would have generated an estimated $480 million annually for highways and bridges, and another $54 million a year for local road projects for 10 years.

So, unless another proposal emerges between now and when the session draws to a close May 12, and unless lawmakers decide to pay more than lip service to funding transportation, the cost of rebuilding any road or bridge in the state will continue to rise, and no new construction will occur.

Clearly, Missouri cannot afford continued paralysis on this issue. Legislative action is long overdue. Another year should not be allowed to pass without addressing the declining condition of the state's transportation infrastructure.

The grim facts speak for themselves.

Missouri has the seventh-largest highway system in the country -- it has more miles of state highways than Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas combined -- but ranks 47th among the states for money available to spend per mile.

Missouri has nearly 10,500 bridges. About 860 are in poor condition, and more than 1,300 are weight restricted, and 100 bridges are added to the deficient list each year. The projected replacement cost was $5 billion a year ago, and continues to climb.

Meanwhile, Missouri's fuel tax has stood at 17 cents per gallon since 1996 and has the buying power today of only 8 cents. All neighboring states have higher fuel taxes, with an average of 25.8 cents per gallon of gasoline.

Libla, who declined to introduce new legislation this session in the Senate, says the state is using 20th century transportation funding on 21st century needs.

He points to relatively flat motor fuel purchases over the past 15 years while the costs to repair roads has more than tripled.

"It defies logic, to me, for anybody to think that we can maintain the roads and bridges we need for safety and commerce at the same level that we had in 1996," the senator told Missourinet earlier this year.

"I guess I don't understand what the fog is. Everybody is always trying to figure out ‘we know how important our roads and bridges are. We just have to figure out how to pay for them.' We already have a way to pay for them. It's a motor fuel user tax."

Libla understands the significance of the issue and has tried to address it. However, House Speaker Todd Richardson, another Poplar Bluff Republican who at one time was a proponent, has not made transportation funding a priority. His support is vital to break the logjam in his chamber.

Moreover, three Republican legislators representing Northeast Missouri -- Craig Redmon of Canton, Lindell Shumake of Hannibal and Jim Hansen of Frankford -- voted against the latest House measure.

They said they did so because it was presented as an amendment tacked onto an alternative fuels bill, rather than a stand-alone bill that would have been subjected to more scrutiny as it worked its way through committee.

However, that begs the question: Why has a stand-alone bill not been proposed in the House? While Redmon, Shumake and Hansen say publicly that there should be meaningful discussions on improving transportation funding, they have not taken the lead to make that happen.

And time is running out in 2017.

If legislators need evidence on the importance of infrastructure investment, they can point to the 2005 effort when voters in Marion, Monroe, Shelby and Macon counties approved a half-cent sales tax for up to 15 years to pay half the cost to four-lane 52 miles of U.S. 36 between Hannibal and Macon.

Once approved, the Missouri Department of Transportation accelerated the project, which was completed in 2010, making U.S. 36 a four-lane highway across the state and completing a significant portion of the Chicago-Kansas City Expressway.

Furthermore, the local share of the construction work will be paid off three years early, and the sales tax will sunset in August.

We again strongly urge lawmakers in Northeast Missouri and across the state to act in the remaining days of this session to address this funding problem. Once they do, voters -- like those 12 years ago in Marion, Monroe, Shelby and Macon counties -- must then demonstrate their support to help spur job and economic growth.

The future of Northeast Missouri and the entire state depends on its transportation infrastructure. Continued inaction will only serve to jeopardize that future.

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