Missouri lawmakers fail to fix road-fund crisis

By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 20, 2016 10:25 am
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Lawmakers from Northeast Missouri say they don't know why a fuel tax issue was not sent to voters before the General Assembly dismissed for the summer one week ago.

The Senate passed a bill in March that would have given voters the chance to decide on a 5.9 cent-per-gallon fuel tax hike. If approved in November, the tax could have generated about $165 million for the Missouri Department of Transportation to spend on roads, bridges and other transportation projects. Another $71 million would have gone to local units of government.

However, House leadership never called the bill for a vote, leaving the state with a continuing transportation funding crisis.

Rep. Craig Redmon, R-Canton, said the Republican whip worked the bill, but it never came up for a vote. He believes the whip learned there were not enough votes to pass it.

"Everybody knows you've got to have good infrastructure to have a good economy. If we don't do something on our bridges and roads, it will just begin a downward spiral," Redmon said.

Rep. Lindell Shumake, R-Hannibal, said he would have voted to give voters the chance to decide the fuel tax issue.

"It gives me more of a comfort level if the voters got to decide it," Shumake said.

Redmon said some legislators might have been reluctant to take a vote on the fuel tax issue during an election year. Even though voters would have made the final decision, some politicians thought they might have been accused of raising taxes.

In the end, House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, did not push for his members to deal with the transportation crisis.

John Briscoe, a New London attorney, was appointed to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission six months ago, and he sees a desperate need for more transportation dollars.

The state spent nearly $1.4 billion on transportation in 2009, but that funding level has fallen to about $700 million, which is not enough to fully maintain all roads and bridges.

MoDOT has dealt with the loss of funds by reducing staff by 1,200 positions, selling 124 pieces of property and 750 pieces of equipment. Even with the savings, annual appropriations have fallen far short of maintenance needs.

"We're using bandages to patch things instead of fully repairing them," Briscoe said.

Several Northeast Missouri projects can't move forward without better funding. Briscoe said he has long supported the Hannibal Expressway to move through traffic around the city.

"About two weeks ago, MoDOT Director (Patrick) McKenna and (other officials) were in Hannibal. Around noon we drove through town on U.S. 61 and they were appalled at the amount of traffic," Briscoe said.

Bridge work also is needed in the area. Briscoe has seen pictures of rusting structures that he says are sobering.

MoDOT is currently seeking public comment on the proposed replacement of the Champ Clark Bridge over the Mississippi River at Louisiana. Federal funds and a cost-share from Illinois will help fund the major river crossing. Officials say too many other bridges are being closed because there is no money to replace them.

Redmon hopes to see a transportation funding solution next year. He said it will need some type of funding increase.

"You can't cut your way to prosperity, and you can't spend your way to prosperity either. You've got to have some sensible cuts and some sensible increases" in funding, Redmon said.

Shumake and Redmon believe a cost-share program that came up in the House has some promise. It calls for MoDOT to match local funding, with the state covering 80 percent of project costs if the city, county or other governmental unit covers 20 percent.

"They did it as a $20 million cost-sharing measure this time," Shumake said.

Redmon said the program probably needs to be a $200 million line item to meet the demand statewide.

Briscoe is encouraged by the cost-share discussion, but he also knows that many small, rural counties don't have the money to cover even 20 percent of a major project.

He said there won't be any cure for the transportation funding crisis this year, and he sees the list of projects growing as MoDOT struggles to handle maintenance work that exceeds its finances.