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As session winds down, Missouri Legislature again poised to do nothing on transportation

As session winds down, Missouri Legislature again poised to do nothing on transportation

April 30th, 2017 by Bob Watson in Missouri News
Westbound traffic on the Missouri River Bridge at Jefferson City was reduced to two lanes in May 2016 during off-peak travel times while workers prepared the bridge for repainting.

Westbound traffic on the Missouri River Bridge at...

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

With two weeks to go in the 2017 legislative session, no proposal to raise Missouri's transportation funding appears likely to win final passage.

The House voted 51-103 on April 12 to reject an amendment that would have sent a nearly 6-cents per-gallon fuels tax increase to voters in November 2018.

The main bill, allowing the state to tax propane-fueled vehicles, ultimately passed and now is waiting for the Senate to debate it.

State Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, sponsored the failed amendment, arguing, "This is the option to fix our roads and bridges — let's not wait for a bridge to collapse."

But state Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Washington, countered during that debate the state should find ways to use its dollars more efficiently instead of raising taxes.

Under current law, Missouri's transportation system is funded mainly through fuels tax revenues and federal funds — and no plan to increase those revenues leaves some people wondering what the transportation future looks like.

As Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry explained: "Missouri has the seventh-largest transportation system in the nation but ranks 47th in funding per mile.

"Funding is the problem. We need more dedicated transportation tax revenue."

Missouri Transportation Director Patrick McKenna told the News Tribune last week: "We have identified $8.25 billion of unfunded investment priorities for the state transportation network over the next 10 years.

"MoDOT has outlined the state of Missouri's transportation system in our 'Citizen's Guide to Transportation Funding in Missouri,'" which can be found at modot.org/guidetotransportation.

McKenna is in his second year as MoDOT's director, after working in New Hampshire and Washington, D.C.

"Funding infrastructure in the state of Missouri is not about MoDOT," he explained. "When citizens understand that they own the roads and bridges and these are worth $125 billion, maybe the question should be whether or not we think it is a good idea to maintain and preserve the assets we own.

"Additional revenue to operate, maintain, preserve and improve the transportation infrastructure is not about MoDOT — it is about whether each citizen wants safe and reliable transportation options available to get where they want to go."

Three years ago, lawmakers placed a sales tax increase proposal on the ballot to help pay for transportation needs.

Missouri voters rejected it.

Former St. Louis state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford now heads the social welfare group Empower Missouri.

"We opposed the sales tax increase in 2014 because sales taxes are regressive, and asking those who do not use our roads to subsidize roads with their purchases seemed very poor policy design," she said, adding her group would support an increase in the fuel tax as well as some mechanism for charging vehicles that use the roads but don't use motor fuels because they are powered by electricity or other fuel that isn't taxed.

"I drive more than 30,000 miles in Missouri annually due to the statewide nature of our organization," Mott Oxford said. "I believe many of our roads and bridges are in need of repair or upgrading.

"Investment in our infrastructure creates jobs and will improve our economy."

State Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, chairs the Senate's Transportation Committee.

"We are falling further behind in replacement of bridges that have been, or will soon be, deemed critical condition and well past their engineered life span," Libla said. "Many roads, including our main arteries, are causing bottlenecks and disrupting the movement of goods, services and citizens' ability to reach their jobs, etc.

"Missouri is the 'crossroads of America,' and this lack of attention is causing serious disruption of interstate commerce."

Missouri Farm Bureau spokesman Estil Fretwell noted transportation issues long have been a concern for the organization's members, who vote to set policies every year.

"Our members acknowledge the need for increased highway and bridge funding," Fretwell reported. "MFB has served on recent statewide transportation study committees and has supported the position that Missouri should increase the funding for roads and bridges."

Tom Crawford, director of the Missouri Truckers Association, noted: "One of the challenges is the fact that our system (now) is in pretty good shape/condition overall. Unfortunately, we are on a mathematical collision course that is going to take more investment to overcome."

Mehan noted: "Leaders in every region of Missouri can easily point to a list of transportation projects that would improve both safety and economic connections. With so many unmet needs, Missouri's current transportation system is a problem for business. Our Missouri 2030 Gallup survey showed that only 37 percent of the state's business leaders were satisfied with Missouri's basic infrastructure."

Crawford, whose business is representing trucks, and McKenna both pointed to problems the shipping industry could face if something isn't done.

"Consider that oversized loads cannot traverse I-70 in this state and, in many cases, require a detour around low-height overpasses and weight-restricted bridges," McKenna said, "as much as doubling the mileage of the trip. This costs time and money — both wasted."

Crawford said those OSOW (oversize/overweight) loads "move our economy" but face major difficulties getting through Missouri.

"For example, a simple 200-mile-or-so journey across Missouri is now pushing 500 miles because of the routing the OSOW and super loads have to take."

McKenna also noted issues with bridges.

"Specifically, major structures over major rivers (we have 209 of these) have a replacement cost of $7 billion," he said. "The bridges in this category have an average, system-wide remaining useful life expectancy of approximately 25 years.

"Simple math here: we should be replacing eight per year, and we are barely able to afford one replacement per year. So we currently have a replacement plan that will take 200 years — with only 25 years left."

That doesn't include the rest of Missouri's nearly 10,000 bridges, with "866 poor condition and 1,300 weight-restricted structures," McKenna said.

The Farm Bureau's Fretwell said: "Some of the state's biggest trouble spots are in rural Missouri, where lettered roads and bridges are deteriorating — particularly lettered routes."

Some in the Legislature have proposed returning those rural roads to the counties — a plan that would reverse MoDOT's taking the roads from the counties about 60 years ago because most counties couldn't afford them.

So far, those plans have made little to no headway and could face a legal challenge, as the 1980 Hancock Amendment to the state Constitution prohibits the state from making the counties take on new duties without the states also paying for that additional work.

The Hancock Amendment also requires voters to approve any major tax increases.

But, Libla said, "The Legislature has the ability to make significant strides in funding each year and still remain under the Hancock Amendment."

The state Chamber of Commerce's Karen Buschmann noted the amendment prohibits lawmakers from raising more than $93 million a year — for all programs — without a statewide vote.

Some lawmakers — and others — have promoted creating toll roads along I-70 and other major routes.

But some House members this year supported a plan to prohibit toll roads from being created.

Over the years, some opponents point to a late 1960s state Supreme Court ruling that Missouri voters would have to approve tolls before they could be imposed.

"As investment levels increase in our surrounding states, businesses will know when it costs less to move around our state than through it," McKenna said. "This is not restricted to I-70 — all of our primary system needs structural attention and upgrade."

Mott Oxford said transportation improvement in Missouri also should stress "the importance of investing in public transportation," which promotes a cleaner environment and "enables persons with low incomes, who cannot purchase automobiles, to have a resource needed to seek employment, to access health care and other essential services, and to provide needed support to family members."

In Missouri, that's generally a problem separate from roads and bridges because state fuel taxes are dedicated to the highway system's construction and maintenance program, plus the Highway Patrol's costs for patrolling roads and enforcing state laws.

Libla said MoDOT has done its part to cut expenses and use its money more efficiently, "like any prudent business would do."

Crawford noted, unlike cars — which pay fuel taxes when they get more gasoline, with that revenue going to the state where the fuel was purchased — interstate trucks pay each state according to the miles traveled within that state.

Still, he said, increasing Missouri's fuel taxes would help "capture an increased share from trucks who fuel up in other states and run miles across Missouri."

McKenna said MoDOT has a better chance to get improved funding when Missourians "understand how little they pay today for access and use of a vast transportation network of 34,000 miles of roads and 10,400 bridges. The average driver pays $30/month in total federal and state user fees" — and generally spend much more on cellphones, cable or satellite systems and other things that may not impact their lives as much as roads do.

The Associated Press contributed some information used in this story.