By CHRIS BLANK
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's transportation commission chairman proposed Thursday the creation of a dedicated 1-cent sales tax to confront funding shortfalls for roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs.
The plan calls for the 1-cent sales tax to last 10 years with hopes of raising an estimated $7.9 billion during the life of the tax. Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission Chairman Rudy Farber said he is seeking a "sustainable, long-term fix for Missouri's transportation problems." He said voter approval would be needed to enact the tax and -- if approved -- to renew it after a decade.
The plan calls for freezing the state gas tax rate and requiring the transportation commission to develop and publish a list of specific projects and timelines before voters would consider approving the sales tax. If the tax passed, the transportation commission then would produce an annual report to the Legislature and governor.
The sales tax would not be levied on medicine and groceries.
Farber said about $1 billion would be set aside for aging Interstate 70, which would include adding an eastbound and westbound lane between Independence in suburban Kansas City and Wentzville near St. Louis. Widening the highway, repaving it, and rebuilding bridges and interchanges have an estimated price tag of about $1.5 billion.
In all, officials estimated cities and counties each could receive $396 million over the 10-year period. The state Transportation Department would have about $5.2 billion for road, bridge, transit, rail, waterway, aviation and other transportation projects in addition to the I-70 project.
Northeast Missouri transportation officials have not yet assembled a list of projects that would be linked to the ballot issue. However, the Hannibal Expressway is one regional priority that has been sought for years in order to take heavy traffic along the Avenue of the Saints off congested city streets. The route would link the southern end of U.S. 24, west of Hannibal, with U.S. 61 to the south of town. The expressway would save mileage for through travelers and allow them to maintain highway speeds.
Another priority that might make the list is a four-lane upgrade for U.S. 54 from Mexico to the Mississippi River at Louisiana.
Farber said the 1-cent sales tax increase could support as many as 270,000 jobs in Missouri for the next decade. He outlined the proposal during a transportation conference sponsored by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The commission has not voted on the proposal, but fellow transportation commission member Grace Nichols said the others serving on the commission are enthusiastic.
"Whether you're a soccer mom or whether you're the CEO of a major company, transportation is important," Farber said.
There has been growing concern about funding for Missouri's transportation system. Since at least 2006, Pete Rahn, then the Transportation Department director, said the annual highway construction budget would decline significantly by 2010 as bond payments for past projects came due. Rahn frequently used the metaphor that Missouri's funding would fall off a cliff. The funding decline was delayed because of federal economic stimulus money that was approved in 2009, but in the last year, the state's highway construction funding has fallen from $1.2 billion to less than $700 million.
A special transportation task force said in a report released this month that Missouri should be spending an additional $600 million to $1 billion annually on transportation projects.
Legislative leaders have signaled support this year for a possible bond package that could include construction at state facilities and college campuses. It also could include a component for transportation projects. However, a state sales tax increase likely would need approval from the state Legislature, and majority party Republicans generally have resisted tax increases while supporting tax cuts.