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Missouri only spends about 0.8 percent of its general revenue on transportation.

Most of Missouri's transportation budget comes from fuel taxes, both state and federal, designated to be used for building, operating and maintaining roads and bridges — including the Highway Patrol's costs of enforcing the state's traffic laws.

And even with a transportation budget in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion, the state is struggling simply to maintain highways and bridges at their current level.

The state of Missouri's transportation, power, sewer and other systems was the topic of a recent question posed to candidates running for Missouri's 6th Senate District and the House 59th and 60th districts.

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Three Democrats — Bryan Struebig, Nicole Thompson and Mollie Freebairn want to fill the Senate seat, which was vacated when Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, was selected to become the lieutenant governor.

After eight years in office, he was term-limited and could not have run for re-election, anyway.

Current District 59 Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, is the only Republican seeking Kehoe's old seat. Libertarian Steve Wilson also is running unopposed in the Aug. 7 primary election for the 6th District seat.

So, neither Bernskoetter nor Wilson were interviewed for this story.

Linda Greeson, D-Eldon, was also not surveyed. She is running unopposed for her party's nomination for the District 59 position that Bernskoetter is leaving.

Five Republicans want to replace him. In the order their names appear on the ballot, they are Karen Leydens, Rudy Veit, Kendra Lane, Randy Dinwiddie and Rik Combs.

Lane was unable to answer the survey questions or do an interview for this story.

Three Republicans, Jane Beetem, Pat Rowe Kerr and Dave Griffith, and two Democrats, Kevin Nelson and Sara Michael, are running for the District 60 seat. They look to fill the position being vacated by Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, who also reached his eight-year term limit.


Gas tax

In the past, voters have opposed gas tax increases, Leydens said. She said she'd like to find other sources of revenue.

Roads are necessary for industry and for private use, Dinwiddie said. While Missouri's roads aren't as bad as some other states, improvements may be necessary.

"None of us likes to pay taxes in excess," he said. "If we did it right, in time the need for a higher tax would no longer be needed."

Veit noted voters will decide whether raising the fuels tax is a good idea.

"Whatever plan is decided upon, it will require the support of the people to succeed," he said. "One thing is for certain, we cannot continue to do nothing.

"Doing so is destructive to our economy and unfairly passing the burden to the next generation."

Veit added: "If we want to develop our rural America — which is a very large area of the state — we need to have good infrastructure so that factories ... can build there.

And, Veit said, that also includes improvements in broadband and other technologies, as well as making sure there's a trained workforce.

Although fuel tax collections already are dedicated to roads and bridges, Combs worries lawmakers might find a way to divert those funds.

Combs thinks the proposed 10-cents a gallon fuels tax increase "would be a good start," and he's not sure it will be enough to resolve the current situation.

"I would support whatever the citizens come up with," he said, adding, based on his own travels, Missouri's "roads and bridges really do need a lot of work they're deteriorating pretty badly."

The increase to the gas tax was almost a necessity, according to Nelson.

"The last time the gas tax was increased was 1996," he said. "The tax that was put in place then is still in place now. It's time to look at that possibility to provide funding for what Missourians use all the time."

If the state invests more in a fuel tax, it's going to reap benefits from it, he said.

The incumbents were among the legislators who passed a bill that put a 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax on the November ballot. If it passes, the tax would increase the current rate of 17 cents per gallon by 2.5 cents each year for the next four years. It likely would generate about $288 million annually for the Highway Patrol — freeing up money now designated for the patrol to be used for roads and bridges — and $123 million annually for local government road construction, sponsors said.

It can't be taken for granted that voters will pass the gas tax, Beetem said. And as they watch what voters do, people need to remember fewer and fewer vehicles run on gasoline.

"As more fleets and individual cars run on electricity and natural gas, a new approach to transportation funding is needed," she said.

With gas taxes as high as they are, it may not be the right time to impose additional costs on Missouri residents, Kerr said.

Money from the proposed tax increase can help free up revenue dedicated to rebuilding Missouri's "crumbling infrastructure," Griffith said. "This proposal alone will not solve all of our infrastructure problems, but it would be a considerable first step."

Senate candidate Struebig said Missouri's "county roads and highways are suffering and are in desperate need of repair, along with many of our bridges."

He supports increasing the state's fuels tax and repealing recent tax-cutting changes in state law, and that "could begin to move in the right direction in funding the repairs and expansion needed" on the state's roads and bridges.

Thompson said infrastructure "is one of those areas where you have to spend money to make money," and noted: "The American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card gave Missouri an overall C- for infrastructure.

"We can do better. Infrastructure supports everything else in the state, and additional funding is needed to make improvements."

She also favors reversing the tax cuts made in recent years, and so does Freebairn.

Freebairn said the proposed gas tax increase "is a start, one small step, in the right direction — but, if you look at the fuel taxes in other states, they are more than 10-cents more than what Missouri has."

That's what's needed to better fund Missouri's roads and bridges, she said.

On July 12, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission approved its 2019-23 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

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The STIP is the Missouri Department of Transportation's planned list of projects for the next five years.

While releasing the STIP, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said the program's spending of $900 million per year annually on a total of 1,319 projects, will only "maintain the system in the condition it is in today." The STIP will provide 586 lane miles of pavement on interstates, 1,065 miles of major route pavement and 2,754 miles of minor route pavement per year annually. It also invests in 172 bridges annually.

With 33,856 miles of roadways, Missouri is the seventh-largest road system in the country. Additionally, the state has 10,403 bridges, many of which are also showing their age, and Missouri ranks 46th in spending per mile.

If the state wants to improve the highway system, which is a necessity for economic development and to attract businesses, McKenna said, it must provide additional investment.

Missouri's Citizen's Guide to Transportation Funding states $55 billion in user fees built the current system, which now has a $125 billion replacement value.

Fuel taxes, registration and licensing fees and vehicle sales taxes are the primary sources for funding MoDOT.

The largest source of revenue is the state fuel tax — 17 cents per gallon of fuel sold in the state.

That rate has remained the same since 1996.

No matter how the price per gallon of gas fluctuates, the 17 cents remains the same.

Additionally, because of inflation over the last 22 years, the 17 cents now has a purchasing power now of only 8 cents.

Vehicle registration fees generated $314 million for roads in 2017. Taxes on vehicle sales generated $419 million.

Much of the state's transportation funding comes from the federal fuel tax. Most of that federal revenue is dedicated to pay for a share of eligible highway improvement costs.

In 2017, the federal fuels taxes provided $696 million for Missouri highways, $148 million for cities and counties and $81 million for federal safety programs and multimodal (non-highway) grants.


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Top concerns

"(My concern) first and foremost is making what we have safe," Nelson said. "Maintaining safety for our highways and bridges is first and foremost."

More than 800 bridges are in dire need of repair, and would benefit from an increased gas tax, he added.

There are problems with roads and bridges and with communications systems and drainage, Michael said. But, having commuted to other states for her son's traveling baseball team, she's seen the difference firsthand between Missouri's highways and others.

"It's almost a line of demarcation when you cross the state lines," she said. "Other states make roads (their) priorities."

Missouri's highways and bridges need attention to remain safe, she said.

"I would like to see maintenance of roads — not so much new roads," Beetem said. "Keeping them maintained and keeping them safe is where the money is needed."

The state's roads and bridges must be repaired, Kerr said. She said the state has to figure out a way to improve its roads.

"The number of bridges we have throughout the state that are in need of repair and are being traveled by school buses — for the safety of our children, we need to address those issues," Griffith said.

The work needs to extend to more than just roads and major highways, he said. And towns like Linn can play a role. Improvements have extended four lanes of U.S. 50 to the town.

"Linn is considering widening all the way through town," he said. "Cities play a role in working on their highways. I would be open to suggestions from the public on what they think would be good opportunities for improvement."

Particularly if voters reject the fuels tax increase in November, Combs said, vehicle registration and licensing fees should be increased "a little," and "those funds need to go specifically to maintain and upgrade our current roads and bridges and not be siphoned off to other projects."

Struebig said, especially in the rural areas, the highway "shoulders are falling off, and bridges are still in pretty bad disrepair" and need to be addressed.

Thompson said MoDOT has been "impressive with what they've managed to accomplish, with what they have," but Missouri must look at ways to improve the department's funding.


Funding opportunities

If times get really bad and there's not enough money to pay for road improvements, Dinwiddie said, that might be a time to consider a funding alternative.

"(There may be a time) we have no choice but to either implement a higher tax or place toll roads in the state to help pay for the roads," he said.

However, an improving economy could overcome the need for either of those options, he said.

The state could possibly raise the cost of license plates, drivers' licenses and user fees to help pay for much-needed repairs, Leydens said.

Also, private citizens or companies could sponsor the replacement or repair of roads and bridges, she said. Some may choose to do so anonymously. Others may choose to have the structure named for themselves or a loved one.

Veit said officials may need to look at funding alternatives — after they determine the priorities.

"Once our options are fully explored, then we can talk about how to pay for it, including alternative methods of financing, toll roads, bonds, private construction, etc.," he explained. "We start with the principle that nothing is off the table to resolve this problem now."

Combs grew up in Florida, and opposes toll roads as a funding source.

"I have a lot of experience with toll roads, and they end up being kind of a nightmare, to be quite honest," he explained. "We may not all use I-70, but every day, every Missourian who is driving around is going to drive on local roads, state highways (or) interstates.

"I think everybody should pay their share — a user fee."

A fuel tax is the fairest way to make improvements, Nelson said. For example, asking the people of Columbia to maintain Interstate 70, U.S. 63 and other major corridors that out-of-state people use to pass through the city would put a burden on its residents.

"If you were to increase the gas tax, every individual, every trucker, every person who buys gas in the state of Missouri would be making a contribution toward that," Nelson said.

While traveling for her son's team, Michael has had to pay tolls. But, she feels that's appropriate because she's using the roads for her own benefit. Missouri can do the same, she said.

"I'm not opposed to a gas tax," she added; everybody needs to contribute.

MoDOT has done its part, Beetem said. The organization has shown a willingness to tighten its belt. It's looked at alternative funding, such as bonding and design/build programs. And it has closed some facilities.

But, it still needs to maintain sheds in some rural areas so it can help keep drivers safe, Beetem said.

"User taxes and fees have not been updated for more than 10 years," Kerr said. "And I think we could look at alternative ways to fund the highway patrol."

Elimination of waste, fraud and abuse could help pay for improvements, she said.

Griffith said lawmakers have to make a good case so voters can make informed decisions. The decision to build a new high school in Jefferson City came about after several tries. The new school had been taken to voters before, but they turned the proposal down.

"I think a reason it passed was that voters had more information," he said. "That same model can be followed with infrastructure — inform voters of the pros and cons."

Struebig said MoDOT "does a tremendous job, given the ever-shrinking budget they have to work with." He thinks lawmakers and other leaders need to be considering alternative funding sources "rather quickly," because "I don't think (a gas tax increase is) going to be, necessarily, adequate because we have put it off for so long."

Thompson thinks gas taxes are part of the funding mix, but noted with the growing number of electric and other alternative fuel vehicles, "We are going to have to look at some way to implement a mileage-based fee system" to fund transportation infrastructure.

She opposes toll roads.

Freebairn also opposes toll roads, as an unneeded "form of privatization."

She sees higher fuels taxes as a better way for the people who use the highway system to pay for transportation needs.

Freebairn said MoDOT "has really done a superlative job with the resources that they've had (to) maintain what they have."


Public input

Upgrades to infrastructure are going to require a concerted effort on the part of government and the people government serves, Michael said. In situations like those where some Missouri communities have combined sewer systems that contain both runoff and human waste that they are trying to separate, a government can guide the community through the process. However, at some point, it is up to the communities (to some degree) to fix their own problems, she said.

Ultimately, it's up to voters to decide if they want a gas tax increase, Kerr said.

"We have to let voters tell us what they want and listen to their decisions," she said.

Public input on the projects is crucial, Griffith said. The state should host public forums and not only give the public information, but listen to what voters are saying. Multiple media outlets also give the state places where they can conduct surveys to learn what voters want, he said.

Veit said that input should be part of "a thorough study to see what the immediate needs are and what has priority. We need to get the experts together to determine what we need.

"We don't need a bunch of individual opinions."


Other infrastructure issues

While most candidates talked mainly about transportation, some also pointed to other areas for infrastructure needs.

For example, Combs said transportation infrastructure should not include "sidewalks, bike paths, greenways, airports" and those kinds of things.

Veit said: "Infrastructure, as for transportation, is roads and bridges.

"Our obligations for technology and buildings are also part of what I feel that we need to immediately address."

Struebig said roads and bridges are important — but so are improvements to the electric grid, which needs "to be updated to not only handle more demand, but also to be more efficient;" rail services, which could help renew and revive rural areas; and to high- speed internet services, which are "essential for running almost every business anymore," and which government needs to help with, since most for-profit companies "do not see a profit motive in expansion" to rural areas.

Thompson said infrastructure is much bigger than just roads and bridges.

"Infrastructure is one of those common things that's required, an underlying foundation for the rest of our industry in the state," she explained, and includes "dams, levees, ports and inland waterways."

Among other things, Thompson said, "We need to increase the reliability of the Missouri river as a shipping channel," which ultimately could "ease the burden on our roads and highways.

"We also need to close the gaps on levee inspections to decrease flood risk in the state."

Freebairn said the state also should be involved in paying for improvements to things like the proposed Hyperloop, which would carry people between Kansas City and St. Louis in about 30 minutes; charging stations for electric vehicles; greenway systems; airports and other alternatives to roads and bridges.

A proponent of solar energy, Freebairn thinks the state should do more to support alternative, renewable energy sources.