Missouri transportation supporters seek another road to success

Posted: Aug. 7, 2014 10:23 am Updated: Aug. 28, 2014 12:15 pm

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

There is no backup plan for Missouri highway and bridge funding after the defeat of Amendment 7 in Tuesday's primary election, and officials warn that road safety will decline.

Nearly 60 percent of voters statewide opposed the three-quarter-cent sales tax that would have generated about $5.4 billion over 10 years.

"I don't view it as a failure. We just have to find other ways to fund transportation," said Stephen Miller, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.

Supporters said the money was needed to avoid a funding crisis that will leave the state without the money needed to maintain the transportation system in as little as three years.

"There really was no Plan B other than trying to maintain the status quo as long as we can. And when roads start to deteriorate it's not going to be acceptable," said Bill McKenna, co-chairman and treasurer of the Missourians for Safe Transportation.

Thomas Shrout Jr., a St. Louis consultant and treasurer for Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions which opposed Amendment 7, said the sales tax proposal was unacceptable.

"The people on our group, many of whom have been involved in transportation, want to see a multimodal approach" and use taxes rather than a sales tax, Shrout said. "The Missouri General Assembly could raise the fuel tax a few cents a gallon under state law. I think there would be support for it."

McKenna does not believe voters would support a fuel tax increase. Even if they would, lawmakers are unlikely to put another ballot measure before voters next year.

McKenna said MoDOT needs $600 million to $800 million annually. A fuel tax on gasoline brings in about $29 million for every 1 cent per gallon tax, meaning it would take more than a 20-cent tax hike just to come close to the $600 million figure. Diesel fuel taxes bring in only about $6.4 million for every 1-cent tax.

MoDOT Chief Engineer Ed Hassinger said $485 million is the level of funding needed to carry on system maintenance of highways and bridges. By 2017 MoDOT has projected that funding levels could drop to $325 million.

Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, who sponsored the rejected sales tax proposal, has pledged to promote other transportation funding options next year. Those could include higher vehicle registration fees, new fees for electric or hybrid vehicles, indexing the fuel tax to inflation or turning to private investors to build major road or bridge projects.

Most other lawmakers remained silent on the issue.

Without additional revenues, transportation officials said MoDOT won't be able to improve the shoulders on thousands of miles of narrow two-lane roads, potentially leading to a rise in traffic fatalities that had been declining in recent years. Fatalities on Missouri's roads already are up 3 percent this year compared with last year.

Because of the funding gap, transportation officials said the department may also be forced close some of the state's 814 worst bridges.

"The clear and resounding signal we got is that we need to look for some other alternatives in terms of long-term financing," said transportation commission member Joe Carmichael. "I don't think the people voted against transportation, I think they voted against the way we were going to fund this."

Amendment 7 passed in several Northeast Missouri counties, but lost in most other parts of the state. The margin of defeat was nearly 2-to-1 in St. Louis and other metropolitan areas.

The Associated Press provided information for this story.