Herald-Whig View

Again, Missouri Legislature fails to fund roads

Posted: May. 29, 2016 12:01 am
ANOTHER YEAR, another missed opportunity for the Missouri General Assembly to support the critical investment necessary to reverse the downward spiral of the state's transportation network.

Regrettably, this continuing failure to address the most pressing economic development issue facing the state no longer comes as a surprise.

To its credit, the Senate approved legislation in March that would have given voters the chance to decide on a 5.9-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase that could have generated about $165 million annually for the Missouri Department of Transportation to spend on various projects, and another $71 million for local units of government.

However, despite assurances last fall from House Speaker Todd Richardson of Poplar Bluff that transportation funding would be a top priority this year, the bill languished without explanation in that chamber and was never called for a vote before the Legislature adjourned May 13.

The best excuse Northeast Missouri's House representatives -- Craig Redmon of Canton, Lindell Shumake of Hannibal and Jim Hansen of Frankford, all members of the Republican majority -- could muster was that the bill fell victim to election year politics.

Apparently, no House member wanted to be seen as supporting a tax increase -- even one that would have required approval by voters and offered significant economic benefits to our region and the state by providing desperately needed transportation funding.

The frustrating inaction serves as yet another example of how Missouri's elected lawmakers and governor have failed to address the state's vital transportation funding issues.

Missouri was able to make 2,200 miles of highway improvements the last time it passed transportation legislation in 2004. More than 50 critical highway projects were started, including completion of the Missouri portion of the Chicago-Kansas City Expressway, and there was $1.6 billion in new construction that brought jobs and economic vitality to the state.

The state spent nearly $1.4 billion on transportation in 2009, but that funding level has fallen below $700 million, which is not enough to fully maintain all roads and bridges. In fact, MoDOT reports 22 percent of roads are in poor condition, and 23 percent of bridges are in need of repair. Moreover, 100 bridges are added to the deficient list each year. MoDOT will be able to maintain only 8,000 of its 34,000-mile highway system with existing funding.

Other states facing the same dilemma have acted. Eight -- Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Washington -- passed legislation raising their gas taxes in 2015, as did nine other states over the previous two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, three times in the past four years legislation to raise the fuel tax was proposed in Missouri, only to fail to make it through both the House and Senate.

In addition, voters in 2014 defeated Amendment 7, an unpopular, non-user tax option that 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.

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

Last increased in 1992, Missouri's 17-cent-per-gallon fuel tax is one of the lowest in the nation and has lost more than half of its purchasing power over the past 20 years. Business groups, including the trucking industry and convenience store operators, understand the economic benefits of a viable road and bridge improvement plan and have supported proposed fuel tax hikes.

As a result of this neglect, work on the Hannibal Expressway in Northeast Missouri has stalled because of a 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.

Clearly, Missouri is jeopardizing its economic future by failing to address a funding crisis that is becoming increasingly dire.

With a new governor to be elected in November, our regional lawmakers should cast aside excuses and demonstrate the critical leadership necessary in 2017 to ensure adequate transportation funding is available to provide the state with essential jobs and economic growth.