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Missouri dilemma: Transportation needs vs. willingness to pay the price

By: Jim Erickson

 [MoDOT photo]

Construction of the new Daniel Boone Bridge segment over the Missouri River was the last major bridge project completed locally. [MoDOT photo]

Most Missourians agree that the state is facing a transportation problem. Some argue the situation is more than “a problem” and that “crisis” is a more accurate term.

Bridges are deteriorating, roads are suffering from a lack of maintenance and major infrastructure projects that many believe are vital to the state’s longer-term economic development aren’t getting done, or face a long wait before there’s any hope of their coming to fruition.

The roadblock, of course, is money, or rather a lack thereof. But even that statement sparks active debate among those who maintain that it’s not a question of there not being enough money; instead, they argue, the state should be using more wisely the funds already going to Jefferson City.

But wait! On the other side is the view that the preceding point is simply a way to avoid addressing difficult issues with realistic solutions, including – take a deep breath here – the need to raise taxes, arguably a step onto what’s viewed in many quarters as the third rail of Missouri politics.

In such an environment, the easy answer is to point fingers – and in the meantime, nothing gets done, a situation that seems to describe many state and national issues.

One step recently taken to get things moving was the creation of the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force. The group’s charge is to evaluate the current condition of the state’s transportation system and funding levels and to make recommendations. In short, it can consider, debate and make decisions on what should be done, but has no authority to implement anything. Whether the task force winds up being another exercise in kicking the can down the road, or a key focal point in achieving broad consensus on what to do and how, remains to be seen.

Ultimately, Missouri voters likely will have the final say on any transportation strategy that involves raising taxes.

In late June, the 23-member task force held its organizational meeting and established a schedule of six more, the first of which was held in late July in Kansas City. The meetings will continue once monthly through December at other locations around the state. A St. Louis area meeting now is set for Oct. 18.

The task force includes five members from both the Missouri House and Senate, with Rep. Kevin Corlew [R-Kansas City] chairing the group and Sen. Dave Schatz [R-Sullivan] serving as vice chair. Schatz’s 26th Senate district includes Wildwood and Chesterfield.

Sen. Bill Eigel [R-Cottleville], who represents District 23, also serves on the task force.

Other members include representatives from the state’s executive branch, among them MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna and those appointed by legislative leaders and the governor to represent the private sector.

[MoDOT photo]

Looking west into St. Louis County from Illinois provides a sense of the massive transportation system that supports Missouri, and more specifically local, commerce and citizens. [MoDOT photo]

Framing the discussion 

Some $55 billion of Missouri taxpayer dollars have been invested in the state’s road transportation system over the years, providing nearly 34,000 miles of highways and 10,400 bridges. It’s the seventh-largest such network in the nation.

Missouri’s state highway mileage is greater than any of the eight surrounding states; the total is more than Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas combined.

While those statistics could be viewed as points of pride, the rub is that the incoming revenue for that system, in terms of dollars per mile, ranks 47th among 50 states at $50,766. For comparison, the national average is more than four times higher, at $216,533. With just 2,340 miles of state roads and 2,423 bridges, New Jersey ranks first in revenue per mile with a whopping $1.68 million, more than 32 times the Missouri average.

A number of details make certain Missouri realities even starker.

It doesn’t require a long memory to recall that just 10 years ago this month, the bridge carrying Interstate 35 west over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed during the evening rush hour. Thirteen were killed in the horrific event; another 145 were injured. Although the collapse spotlighted the condition of the nation’s aging infrastructure, experts ultimately concluded a design defect in the 40-year-old bridge was the cause, rather than inadequate maintenance. Nonetheless, the span had been rated “structurally deficient,” meaning it needed repair or replacement. The bridge also was considered “fracture critical,” meaning a collapse could occur if a single, vital component failed.

Of Missouri’s 207 “major” bridges – those more than 1,000 feet long – MoDOT’s asset management plan calls for replacing or repairing 62 of them due to their age or condition during the next 10 years. However, funds are available for just 1.2 yearly, or 12 in the upcoming decade. That statistic doesn’t include the 1,300 bridges in the state that already have restrictions on how much weight can be put on them due to their condition.

MoDOT’s total revenue in fiscal 2016 was nearly $2.5 billion, with almost two-thirds of that, or $1.54 billion, coming from state user fees such as the motor fuel tax, registration and licensing fees, and motor vehicle sales taxes. Another one-third, or $911 million, came from federal revenue, with a small fraction coming from the state’s general fund.

Of the user fees, the 17-cents-per-gallon tax on both gasoline and diesel fuel sales provides the most revenue, some $698 million last year.

The revenue pie last year was cut into five main pieces, including $408 million for city and county projects, $250 million for the state highway patrol and other state agencies, $280 million for debt payments and $96 million for multimodal efforts. After those disbursements, the remaining $1.43 billion went to state roads and bridges in 2016.

Compared with the eight states that border Missouri, only Oklahoma has a motor fuel tax as low as the Show-Me State. Other adjoining states have gasoline and diesel levies ranging from 19 to 21.5 cents per gallon, respectively. In Illinois, the rate is 30.7, and it’s 32.5 cents per gallon in Iowa. Both states have far fewer bridges and miles of road to maintain than Missouri.

Another major difference is that Oklahoma also has a well-developed network of toll roads, ranking second among all states in its toll road mileage. The largest segment is Interstate 44, which runs 328 miles from Oklahoma’s northeastern corner and border with Missouri to its border with Texas in the southwestern area of the state.

A recent report from the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association [IBTTA] lists Oklahoma’s total toll road mileage as 605. The Sooner State earlier was first in that category, but Florida recently surged into the top spot with 719 miles, according to a report published in the Orlando Sentinel.

Nationwide, 34 states, as well as Puerto Rico, have at least one tolled highway, bridge or tunnel.

Although toll revenues accounted for just 5 percent of transportation funding across the nation in 2011, IBTTA quotes a 2010 study by the Kansas City-based HNTB Corp. as saying 84 percent of Americans believe tolls should be considered as a primary source of transportation revenue or on a project-by-project basis.

IBTTA is a worldwide association representing toll facility owners and operators, and the businesses serving them. HNTB is a civil engineering consulting and construction management firm.

[MoDOT photo]

Interstate 64 through the Chesterfield Valley is one of a number of repaving projects being conducted this summer as part of MoDOT’s focus on maintenance. [MoDOT photo]

More money needed, but from where?

Eigel agrees there’s a consensus that Missouri needs a new direction in transportation funding, but acknowledges major differences exist on what that should entail.

“Some people think we need to create new revenue sources, but I’m not one of them,” he said. “Right now, we’re sending more money to Jefferson City than ever before. I think we can use the money we have more wisely and set aside more for transportation infrastructure as a high-priority item.”

But Schatz isn’t sanguine about the workability of increasing MoDOT revenues by using general fund dollars now going.

“The problem is that future legislatures can decide to hold back any additional dollars taken from the general fund for transportation purposes and use the money for whatever the most pressing need of the moment happens to be,” Schatz said. “You simply can’t plan any major transportation projects with that kind of limited time horizon in your flow of funds.

“I think we need to remember that a basic function of government is to put needed infrastructure in place, and that infrastructure has to be paid for.”

Last changed in 1996, Missouri’s motor fuel tax dollars today have about half the buying power they had two decades ago, Schatz observed. Plus, vehicles are getting better gas mileage, putting a damper on the number of gallons on which the tax is paid.

Another potential bone of contention that could stand in the way of developing a consensus approach for dealing with the transportation issue is the difference between what each of MoDOT’s seven geographic districts receives for funding projects and what those districts contribute in various user fees.

That question troubles state Rep. Bruce DeGroot [R-Chesterfield]. MoDOT has provided details on how many dollars go to each district, but DeGroot said he hasn’t received an answer as to how those amounts compare with the user fee revenues that each district funnels to the state.

“No one can expect the dollar amounts to be close to the same in any given year or even over several years,” DeGroot said. “But I think there should be some correlation over time.”

DeGroot readily admits that his concern stems, at least in part, from anecdotal comments that the general condition of state roads in rural areas is better than in metropolitan St. Louis.

“I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I raised that question [about district expenditures vs. revenue generated] with MoDOT a couple of months ago and still haven’t received an answer,” he said.

Schatz said he is willing to consider any number of transportation funding options, but added, “At the end of the day, I think the task force will wind up recommending some combination of user fee increases.”

The task force already has heard pros and cons on boosting the state’s motor fuel taxes, tolling, different ways of using the tax money MoDOT already receives and the possibility of public-private partnerships.

“I kind of have a feeling that even though you’re going to be going down this [task force] road … you’re ultimately going to have just a certain number of tools in your toolbox,” said Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, who spoke at the task force’s first meeting in Jefferson City. “I don’t think you’re going to uncover any silver bullets that no one has thought of to date.”

For now, maintenance is the name of the game

For the present, Missouri’s latest Statewide Transportation Improvement Program [STIP], issued earlier this summer for the 2018-22 period, focuses on what taxpayers have asked for: take care of the existing system. According to the STIP, many regions will have adequate funding only to maintain current pavement and bridge conditions.

“It is not prudent for the state to expand the transportation system in regions that struggle to take care of the existing system,” the STIP asserts.

In an age of polarized politics, the question remains as to whether there will be enough willingness to compromise to come up with a longer-term transportation answer.

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