$1B a year needed to fix Missouri transit

Missouri needs an additional $600 million to $1 billion annually to pay for improvements to the state’s transportation system, a task force said in a report released Tuesday.

The transportation panel’s leaders said the Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee on Missouri’s Transportation Needs decided not to suggest a specific funding plan. Instead, the committee pointed to several options lawmakers could consider, including bonds, toll roads, increasing the state sales tax or raising the fuel tax.

“We need to take care of the system that we have,” said Bill McKenna, a co-chairman of the blue ribbon committee and a former member of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. “We’ve got a huge investment here in the state of Missouri.”

State Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City — and a former Highways and Transportation Commission chairman — said the report shows “Missourians understand how important our transportation system is, and if the right set of circumstances were around it, there is some sense that folks would invest in that.”

Still, Kehoe said, the report isn’t the final step.

“I think key stakeholders need to be brought into the process — you know, chambers of commerce, Farm Bureau, convenience store marketers, the trucking industry and, certainly, citizens groups — to fine-tune what some of these recommendations are,” he said, “and to see if there is a coordinated plan that we can put together to get something before the voters, that would be acceptable and would be a good investment in our infrastructure system.”

McKenna said Missouri’s transportation system is large and includes roads, bridges, rail, ports and public transportation. The 22-member committee was created in March 2012 by then House Speaker Steven Tilley. It was led by McKenna, a Democrat and former Senate president pro tem, and former Republican House Speaker Rod Jetton.

Current House Speaker Tim Jones said Missouri’s transportation system is the “lifeblood of our commerce system.” He said the Republican-led House could explore revenue-neutral ways to boost transportation funding and bonds. He also suggested existing state funds could be shifted.

“There’s plenty of government that can still be cut,” said Jones, R-Eureka. “We’re faced every year with an ever increasing, bloating entitlement system. I’d rather spend the money on education, roads and bridges and less on entitlements.”

The Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association would prefer a 1-cent sales tax increase, said the group’s executive director, Ron Leone. With a sales tax, everyone would help pay for the infrastructure from which they all benefit, he said.

Joe DeLong, president and CEO of Delong’s Inc., said he believes an increase in the state sales tax is the best solution for raising enough money to make a difference in the quality of the state’s transportation system and possibly the most politically palatable alternative.

“There’s only a handful of state capitals in the whole United States that have no four-lane access and Jefferson City is one of them,” Delong noted.

“A big priority should be getting Highway 50 expanded to four lanes across the state.”

In its report, the committee estimated a 1-cent sales tax increase would generate $700 million annually in revenue. It said the fuel tax would need to be increased by 20 to 30 cents.

Kris Hilgedick and Bob Watson of the News Tribune staff contributed information used in this story.

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