Herald-Whig View

Missouri's road funds have been running on empty far too long

Posted: Jan. 24, 2016 12:01 am
THERE IS something fundamentally wrong when everyone in a state government agrees there is a monumental crisis, yet nothing is done to address it.

That scenario continues to play out in Missouri, where a catastrophic reduction in available transportation funding has been anticipated and tracked for more than a decade. Still, lawmakers, governors and voters have been unwilling to provide the necessary funds to fix it -- even as roads crumble, bridges close or are weight restricted, and critically important economic development initiatives are postponed.

Over time, as transportation funding levels have fallen from $1.3 billion a year to less than half that amount, it has become impossible to continue to ignore this growing problem. Now is the time to act.

The Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee last week passed a proposal that would raise one of the lowest fuel taxes in the nation for the first time since the early 1990s. Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, wants to boost the tax on gasoline by 1.5 cents per gallon and diesel taxes by 3.5 cents.

Unfortunately, there is no assurance the Missouri Senate will approve this modest -- and, in the overall picture, inadequate -- fuel tax legislation, despite the support of unlikely allies in the Missouri Trucking Association, Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, and Show-Me Institute.

Even if it does, prospects in the House look dim after Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said his caucus wants to "hold the line on taxes." Sadly, that's not the message Richardson delivered during a tour of Northeast Missouri late last year when he said transportation funding has to be a top priority.

Even Libla's bill would represent only a baby step on the path toward solving the burgeoning problem, but it would be a start. It would provide an estimated $56 million to the Missouri Department of Transportation -- only a third of the $160 million per year needed to match federal funds -- and another $24 million for city and county roads and bridges.

The General Assembly would have to commit to a second and third round of fuel tax increases to cover basic maintenance costs. However, taking this baby step, if it can be accomplished, would be preferable to continuing to do nothing.

All neighboring states have higher fuel taxes than Missouri, with an average of 25.8 cents per gallon of gasoline. Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Arkansas -- conservative red states -- have all moved decisively in recent years to increase transportation funding. Missouri should follow suit.

It would be unfair to blame today's predicament solely on the state's current leadership or electorate. Fees were last raised in 1992 under Republican Gov. John Ashcroft and a Democrat-controlled legislature to catch up on highway investment that had lagged for years. Two-cent increases in 1992, 1994 and 1996 moved the state fuel tax to 17 cents from 11 -- providing enough money to care for the system, but with no provision to keep pace with inflation or emerging needs.

Missouri maintains the seventh-largest highway system in the nation, with 33,890 miles of road -- more miles than Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa combined. It also is responsible for 10,364 bridges, including 53 major river crossings, more than any other state. Yet it ranks 47th nationally in money available to spend per mile, and the 17-cent fuel tax of 1996 has the buying power of only 8 cents today.

Dwindling state and federal revenue since 2010 has forced MoDOT to postpone critically important road and bridge projects in Northeast Missouri and elsewhere because there simply has been no way to pay for them.

Twice in the past three years legislation to raise the fuel tax was proposed, only to fail to make it through both the House and Senate. In addition, voters in 2014 defeated Amendment 7, which would have raised the state's sales tax by three-quarters of a cent for 10 years, generating an estimated $480 million annually for highways and bridges, and another $54 million a year for local road projects.

That proposal would have increased vital transportation funding to a more acceptable level, but the sales tax approach was not supported by Gov. Jay Nixon and others, and was soundly beaten outside of Northeast Missouri.

This unsustainable scenario means roads deteriorate, business development stalls, highway safety declines and new road construction does not occur.

In Northeast Missouri, the Hannibal Expressway has been set aside because of lack of funding. It represents the only unfinished link along the 566-mile Avenue of the Saints, a three-state national highway between St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn. The expressway has been a top regional priority since 1984, and would offer significant safety and economic development potential in and around Hannibal.

Legislative action is long overdue. Missouri simply cannot grow its economy without a 21st century transportation infrastructure system. It is imperative, then, that lawmakers finally begin to decisively address this funding stagnation now before it further cripples the economic future in Northeast Missouri and across the state.

We urge our regional representatives in the Missouri legislature to lead and support this effort.