JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Funds generated by a 2004 voter-approved initiative in Missouri to improve highways and bridges has not kept up with the payments needed to pay off bonds for the largest road improvement project in state history.
The Associated Press found that the Missouri State Highway Patrol's share of transportation dollars has risen from $133 million in 2005 to $230 million this year. Those dollars, drawn from transportation-dedicated funds, have forced the Missouri Department of Transportation to make part of the bond payments from the state road fund in 10 of the past 12 years.
The 2004 ballot issue boosted road funds by ending diversions from most transportation funds. The Missouri Department of Revenue and other agencies that had received part of the vehicle sales tax collections before then. Sponsors of the initiative projected it would generate $160 million more annually for roads and bridges once fully implemented in fiscal 2009. State budget officials were even more optimistic, anticipating $187 million more each year for the highway system.
But actual revenues still haven't hit state projections.
After offsetting the additional vehicle sales tax revenues by the higher transfers to the Highway Patrol, the AP's analysis found that the MoDOT netted a $117 million gain for roads in fiscal 2017 compared with the 2005 budget. That's only two-thirds of what the state originally anticipated.
MoDOT has had to draw more than $250 million out of its regular road funds to help cover $1.5 billion of Amendment 3 debt payments because the initiative's funding account fell short during 10 years. In the other two years, more than $50 million of Amendment 3 revenues went to help cover other road bonds.
MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said Missourians need to know that the bond payments are being made and the Amendment 3 funds are expected to cover bond costs over the life of the repayment.
"It's just taking longer to get to where we thought projections would be," McKenna said.
The funding drain on the road fund also points to a larger challenge faced by MoDOT, he said.
"We've identified over $800 million in infrastructure needs each year that are not being met. Our revenue has not kept pace with inflation," McKenna said.
John Briscoe, an attorney from New London and a member of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, was surprised to hear about the bond payment issues. Briscoe was not on the commission when Amendment 3 was approved.
"I know we're terribly underfunded (at MoDOT), but I didn't know about this," Briscoe said.
Passage of Amendment 3 allowed the state to double its road funding in 2005 and 2006. A total of 2,200 miles of highway improvements were completed. Many roads were resurfaced, lanes stripes were repainted, signs and guardrails were installed, and rumble strips were carved into highways to boost safety.
The state also improved or repaired more than 800 bridges.
Much of the Highway Patrol increase has been driven by salaries and benefits. That's because the enactment of Amendment 3 coincided with a separate law raising wages for state troopers closer to the rates paid at Missouri's three largest metropolitan police agencies.
Lawmakers who craft the state budget also have tapped road funds for other Highway Patrol costs, including a new statewide radio communications system, expanded crime lab functions, and replacement of vehicles.
"I remember a radio upgrade back in I think 2008 ... but I don't know if that's what they're talking about in the (AP) story," said state Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown. "I am a conservative, but I think we're going to have to do some additional funding for MoDOT as well as getting a dedicated funding stream for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. I believe that infrastructure and security are two of the functions that government needs to provide."
The patrol gets 71 percent of its budget from road funds, Highway Patrol Maj. Lance MacLaughlin said.
Missouri is one of 26 states that use road funds to help finance their highway patrols, according the National Conference of State Legislatures. But some states rely more heavily on other dedicated funding sources.
Tom Boland, a Hannibal businessman who previously served on the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, said transportation funding and the state troopers who keep the highways safe must both be priorities.
"This situation must be resolved by funding for both MoDOT and Highway Patrol by the Legislature and the governor. Neither can be shortchanged," Boland said.
Jewell Patek was campaign director for the committee that promoted Amendment 3. Patek believes the public would support another ballot measure similar to Amendment 3 "that would make it clear that transportation dollars only went to transportation funding" while creating a separate, dedicated tax for the Highway Patrol.
Such a plan could be placed on the ballot by legislators or an initiative petition. But proposed tax hikes have fared poorly in the past. Voters most recently rejected a three-quarters-cent sales tax for transportation in 2014.
The Associated Press provided information for this story.