MISSOURI has been stuck in a rut for years as lawmakers have failed to take the tough votes necessary to increase funding so the state can begin to repair an alarming number of crumbling roads and bridges.
The General Assembly now is considering several options that could begin to restore the transportation system and spur economic development. Some bills that would involve phased increases in the fuel tax could be passed by legislators, while others would need approval by voters to take effect.
Unlike years past, legislators should not squander this important opportunity in the final five weeks of the legislative session.
If any of these plans become law, it would be the first increase in the state's gas tax since 1996, when the rate was set at 17 cents per gallon. While today's proposals would generate far less than the state's $825 million in annual unmet transportation needs, it would at least represent a start in addressing a critical issue that has been ignored for far too long.
Numbers clearly tell part of the story of Missouri roads and bridges. The state's fuel tax is the fourth lowest in the nation, but the 33,884 miles in its highway system ranks seventh among the states. Importantly, the purchasing power of the current gasoline tax has eroded with inflation, with the state ranking 47th in terms of revenue raised per mile.
The result is that many of the state's primary and secondary roads are crumbling, and 1,253 bridges are weight restricted and dozens more are closed to traffic. The National Safety Council has given Missouri a grade of F, ranking it last in the nation for preventable crashes because of poor road and bridge conditions.
Northeast Missouri residents have their own stories. Some face vehicle repairs caused by poor road conditions, while others take detours to avoid inferior roads or restricted bridges. These are added costs borne by people who live or work in Missouri.
Moreover, while it's hard to quantify the lost opportunity costs as businesses choose not to locate in Missouri, there is no doubt that a deteriorating transportation system represents an unnecessary economic hardship to the state.
Legislators established the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force last year, and the 23-member panel released its findings in January. State Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City, said the recommendation was for a 10-cent increase in the gas tax and a 12-cent hike in diesel fuel. It would raise an estimated $430 million a year to cover roads and bridges, and about $60 million for other modes of transportation.
Other bills have since been proposed. While none of them would entirely fix the state's transportation problems that grow by the day, continuing to do nothing will have dire consequences.
The first step in getting Missouri out of its rut is now up to members of the Missouri House and Senate.