By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
Missouri Transportation Director Dave Nichols promised the state would do its best to keep roads and bridges safe after voters rejected a sales tax for transportation in Tuesday's primary election.
"We will continue our focus on safety, maintaining our roads and bridges, and providing outstanding customer service with the resources we have," Nichols said in a Wednesday morning news conference.
Amendment 7 fell with 59 percent opposition statewide. The sales tax issue was proposed by the Republican-led Legislature after a blue-ribbon commission traveled the state seeking ideas to keep afloat a transportation program whose budget fell from $1.2 billion to about $600 million in the past five years. The budget is projected to fall to $325 million by 2017, which would not be enough to cover maintenance on 33,890 miles of highway and more than 10,000 bridges.
Stephen Miller, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, said the people have spoken and the commission respects the result.
"As we have seen for the past several years, I think Missourians have a clear understanding that more resources need to be invested in our transportation infrastructure, but there just isn't any consensus on how to pay for it. We need to continue working toward that end," Miller said.
Most counties in Northeast Missouri favored Amendment 7, but voters in Scotland, Shelby and Ralls counties opposed it by small margins.
The three-quarter-cent sales tax would have funded more than 800 highway and transportation projects, including the replacement of the Champ Clark Bridge over the Mississippi River at Louisiana, Mo. Repaving projects, smaller bridge repairs and some OATS van upgrades were planned as well.
The tax was expected to generate $540 million annually for 10 years, with 5 percent of that going to counties and 5 percent to cities.
The Missouri Department of Transportation's list of projects was not enough to convince voters to support a tax that would have added an extra 75 cents for every $100 spent on items, excluding groceries and prescription drugs.
State Sen. Mike Kehoe, a former transportation commissioner who supported the tax proposal, said it's unlikely the Legislature will put forward another transportation funding plan next year. Rather, he said it may take the closure of old bridges or other extreme measures before the state's transportation needs become apparent to more people.
"The problem's still there, the system size is still there, the number of bridges are still there, and the funding is still declining," said Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City.
The general sales tax would have marked a historic shift for a state that has relied solely on user fees such as fuel and vehicle taxes to fund its highways for nearly a century. Missouri voters have not passed a tax increase for roads since 1987, though the Legislature approved a gradual fuel tax increase in 1992.
Construction contractors, labor unions, engineering firms and others who stood to benefit from increased transportation spending poured more than $4 million into the campaign for the sales tax. They had outspent opponents by a more than 100-to-1 ratio heading into the final weeks of the campaign.
The opposition consisted of general anti-tax activists, as well as others who feared the sales tax could hit the poor the hardest while demanding nothing from heavy highway users such as trucking companies.
The defeat is "an opportunity to continue the conversation and come up with a funding mechanism that makes sense and includes trucks in some fashion," said Thomas R. Shout Jr., a St. Louis consultant who was treasurer of the opposition group.
Paula Gough, MoDOT's district engineer in Northeast Missouri, said the goal going forward will be to keep the road system up with the resources available.
"We were focused on the vision for transportation that came from all the Missouri citizens, but unfortunately without the funding, we're going to have to wait for a funding solution that Missourians can accept," Gough said.
The Associated Press provided information for this story.