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Perspective: For whom the road tolls

Amendment 7 failed by a large margin. The strongest arguments against this measure were two-fold: a general and well-founded opposition to a tax increase, and the concern that trucking companies, who use our highways the most, wouldn’t bear the burden of upkeep.

As your state representative, I voted to put Amendment 7 on the ballot because we’re on the brink of a transportation funding crisis in Missouri, and the issue was important enough that you deserved the opportunity to vote on it.

Passed in November 2004, Constitutional Amendment 3 isolates transportation funding in Missouri from the rest of the state budget. MoDOT receives a direct stream of funding which the Legislature is not allowed to divert and, in turn, the Legislature has walled-off general revenue funding from MoDOT.

MoDOT says it costs roughly $485 million a year to maintain Missouri’s current state highways and bridges. Current funding exceeds that amount, allowing for new projects to accommodate new business and growing cities. But the very near future is bleak. By 2017, MoDOT’s projected revenues are $325 million. The shortfall is caused by decreasing funding from the federal government and continuing increases in fuel economy.

Missourians seem to follow the national trend on transportation funding. According to an article in Wednesday’s News Tribune, a clear majority of Americans believe the benefits of good transportation systems outweigh the costs. But few want to pay for it. Despite declining gas tax revenues due to increased fuel economy, clear majorities also oppose gas tax hikes, tolls and usage taxes.

Joshua Schank, president of a transportation think tank, commented: “People want to have a federal transportation program and they don’t want to pay for it.”

What happens if Missouri’s roads and bridges are under-funded by $160 million a year? More accidents and less industry that relies on adequate transportation infrastructure. With Amendment 7’s rejection, it’s time for those concerned about infrastructure and public safety to return to the drawing board.

As I explained in March in Chamber Today, providing safe roads is a basic function of government and vital to our economy. I believe the best solution would be user-generated tolls. I support this option because, like the gas tax, it requires those who use the public good (a road) to pay costs directly associated with their use of the good.

Toll roads are allowed in 38 other states and have worked well to improve road quality. In addition, tolls solve the problems associated with the two best arguments against Amendment 7. They aren’t a tax, and they don’t shift costs away from heavy highway users. They are a far more conservative solution to dwindling highway funds than the sales tax route. Tolls are more like a fee. You get what you pay for. If you use I-70, you pay a greater share of its maintenance costs. The same for any other tolled road.

Tolls, of course, have their detractors. Ordinary Missourians who use highways likely to be tolled won’t like the added costs. The logistics of converting non-toll roads to toll roads won’t be simple. And trucking companies will argue that they will “vote with their wheels” and by-pass Missouri as a shipping route.

There are answers to each of these arguments. Like any other service, toll roads can, and do, offer discounts for volume – and could be structured to further reduce the costs to residents of the area of the toll road. Though conversion is not simple, it is possible.

Finally, though some trucking companies may avoid Missouri toll roads, I doubt the impact will be significant. On the Kansas Turnpike, an 18 wheeler can drive from Lawrence to Oklahoma for less than $30 (according to a calculator on the turnpike website). For sake of argument, let’s double the rate to take I-70 across Missouri for an 18-wheeler to $60. Now consider that 18 wheeler is likely hauling hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of merchandise. How many hours is a trucking company willing to delay delivering goods to its customers to save $60? And what if some trucks decline to take I-70 or I-44? The result would be less wear-and-tear on those highways. How much money will trucking companies save every year from driving on better-maintained roads and highways? How much maintenance will be saved? How many catastrophic accidents would be avoided?

I’m confident Sen. Kehoe will continue to lead on transportation and other infrastructure issues. Unlike many in our Capitol, Sen. Kehoe does not run from difficult issues. He tackles them. I look forward to continued debate in this area and will work to ensure that user-based tolls are a large part of the solution.

State Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, represents Missouri's 60th District.

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