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Missouri Senate gives first-round approval to bridges bonding plan

Missouri Senate gives first-round approval to bridges bonding plan

April 12th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Local News

Missouri Senate leaders expect a final vote Monday on the latest version of a bonding bill to repair more than 200 bridges around the state.

The Senate endorsed the measure Thursday afternoon.

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, proposed the revised plan Thursday, after senators spent about seven hours Tuesday night into Wednesday morning debating the bonding idea first proposed by Gov. Mike Parson in his Jan. 16 State of the State address.

The compromise includes a $50 million appropriation from general revenue funds to pay directly for the renovation or replacement of 35 bridges the state Transportation Department already has identified — plus $301 million in bonds to pay for work on another 215 bridges.

Those bonds would be repaid with $46 million a year in general revenue appropriations over a seven-year period — just less than half the 15-year payback Parson had proposed.

But the bonding plan is included in a resolution that says it will take effect only “upon acceptance by the Missouri Department of Transportation of a grant from the federal government for road and bridge purposes” — a grant MoDOT is seeking to help pay for construction of a new Interstate 70 bridge across the Missouri River at Rocheport.

“We asked for $172 million,” Schatz said. “We think something north of $60 (million) or $70 million would be” acceptable.

He said negotiations on the compromise language included the House Republican leadership, MoDOT officials and the governor’s office.

Conservative Republicans in the Senate and House, as well as some Democrats, have objected to using bonding and general revenue funding to pay for work that traditionally has been paid from a user fee — the state’s tax, currently 17 cents, on each gallon of motor fuel sold in the state.

But voters have rejected fuels tax increase proposals, including last November’s defeat of a phased-in 10 cents a gallon increase over a five-year period.

“There are people who have a really difficult time using (general revenue) and bonding and debt,” Schatz said, “coming to the point where I think the key element of this was the opportunity (of the grant) funds.

“If there are enough funds that we can be awarded in that (grant) application, that will allow us to do the Rocheport bridge — that’s what moves us to the point where I think that’s the right path to go down.”

Most of the bridges to be repaired or replaced don’t qualify for federal matching dollars.

But supporters of the bonding plan have said removing them from MoDOT’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, makes room in that rolling five-year plan for other bridge projects that could qualify for federal help.

Some lawmakers from the metropolitan areas have complained the bonding plan didn’t include bridges in their areas — but supporters have said getting federal dollars would help the metropolitan areas.

Parson said, in a statement issued Thursday afternoon: “I appreciate the collaborative efforts by the Senate and the House on this shared priority, and am encouraged by the important step taken today to get an infrastructure plan on my desk this (legislative) session.

“While our preference would be for an approach that does not put the fate of long-overdue bridge repairs in the hands of Washington, D.C., we certainly understand that any proposed plan requires compromise to reach a workable solution.”

House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said in a separate statement: “I am pleased the Senate defined its intent to maximize potential federal grants and I am optimistic the final Senate budget maintains the responsible spending plan the House proposed.”

The Senate bonding plan is more expansive than a proposal from House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, who asked lawmakers to spend $100 million in unearmarked general revenue on roads and bridges, each year for the next several years.

In his statement, Haahr applauded Smith “for putting forth a fiscally conservative proposal to fund these infrastructure needs.”

But Schatz told reporters Smith’s plan could jeopardize the federal transportation matching grant.

Senate Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told reporters Thursday afternoon: “The bonding compromise is something we’re all pretty proud of (but) I’m not sure anybody loves it, from all sides of the spectrum.

“Everybody knows there’s a problem. But (the compromise is) one of those things where it is progress (and) movement forward.”

The Associated Press contributed information in this story.