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MoDOT's funding future called bleak

Missouri’s Transportation Department still faces serious financial troubles, so lawmakers again this year are being asked to place a 1-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 4 general elections ballot

“It is a temporary, 1-cent tax dedicated to roads, bridges and transportation projects for a 10-year period,” Rudy Farber of the Missourians for Safe Transportation group told those attending the annual State Transportation Conference on Thursday. “Cities and counties would each get 5 percent of the funds, to dedicate toward local transportation issues of their choice.

“Before Missourians vote on this, the Missouri Department of Transportation would release a list of projects and timetables that would be funded by this proposal.”

Even though lawmakers failed to put the issue to a statewide vote last year, Farber said the sales tax supporters are starting with the General Assembly because, “the votes are there to get this through the Legislature. Secondly, transportation advocates — including myself — believe that the considerable resources it would take to collect valid initiative signatures are better spent on directly communicating with voters this fall, during the campaign.”

Farber, a Neosho banker and former state Highways and Transportation Commission member, later told reporters it costs around $1 million to circulate petitions for a proposed constitutional amendment.

Both chambers passed the proposed amendment last year, but several senators launched a filibuster on the last day of the session last year, killing the bill.

“It’s obviously hard to predict a political outcome,” Farber said. “But I think, if there is a movement out of the House at an early date, there’s a much better chance that any filibuster might get broken.”

The need is more critical this year than was thought a year ago, MoDOT Director Dave Nichols told the conference.

After having a “robust” construction program fueled by about $1.3 billion available per year from 2005-10, he said, just three years from now the department won’t get enough money to pay for regular maintenance on Missouri’s roads and bridges.

“We’re going to find ourselves in fiscal year 2017 (the 2016-17 business year) with $325 million in construction projects,” Nichols said.

But they need about $485 million each year, just to keep the system in its current condition.

Nichols said the problem isn’t caused by a single issue, but a combination of factors.

MoDOT’s main income, 70 percent, is from fuel taxes — 17 cents state tax and 18.4 cents (24.4 cents for diesel) federal tax for each gallon of fuel sold.

Those rates were set in the 1990s, Nichols noted, but revenues are dropping because “people today drive less, and cars are more fuel-efficient than ever.”

Some alternative-fuel and electric vehicles don’t even pay those taxes.

And the state’s costs for materials — such as concrete, steel and asphalt — have doubled or tripled in that same time period, Nichols said.

On top of that, he said, unless Congress adds money back into the Highway Trust Fund, “we’re going to run out of money in the federal fund” before September.

“We’ve been criticized by some, that ‘You guys are creating a sky-is-falling scenario,’” Nichols told the conference. “We’re not making this stuff up.”

The current predictions are so bleak that the Highways and Transportation Commission voted two weeks ago to add no new road projects to the five-year, revolving improvement program.

“MoDOT will no longer be taking on the big initiatives,” Commission Chairman Joe Carmichael told a news conference later. “Transportation will, simply, be a focus of ours that involves maintenance only.

“And that’s a spot we don’t want to be in — and I think most Missourians agree with us.”

Commissioners also halted a popular cost-share program with counties and cities that, since 1988, has built 178 projects around the state for a total $1.1 billion cost. The state’s investment was just $462 million.

That list includes the Missouri 179/Mission Drive interchange for access to the new St. Mary’s Health Center, and the U.S. 63/Discovery Parkway interchange at the south end of Columbia.

Central District Engineer Dave Silvester said the financing change won’t affect the new U.S. 50/63 interchange at Lafayette Street in Jefferson City, which is due to be bid later this year.

But other projects being considered, including U.S. 63 improvements from the Osage River south to Rolla or four-laning U.S. 50 west of California or east of Linn can’t happen under the current money picture.

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