Since the last increase in the state fuel tax was approved by the Missouri General Assembly in 1992, funding for state roads and bridges has become a bit of a victim of life’s circumstances.
That year, legislators agreed to a six-cents-per-gallon increase that was phased in until it reached 17 cents per gallon in 1996. But times changed. The tax increase didn’t take inflation into account – the present 17-cents-per-gallon fuel tax has the buying power of 7 cents in 1996, state officials say.
People also started driving less and their vehicles became more fuel-efficient. So, two decades later, the Missouri Department of Transportation, charged with major road and bridge improvements, found it wasn’t receiving enough money for many new roads and bridges. The department has been largely reducing to maintain the state’s transportation infrastructure.
It was time to try to make up for lost ground.
Flash forward to this May. After an enormous amount of debate and two ballot measures, including a sales tax increase proposal in 2014 that failed badly, legislators have put a state fuel tax – Proposition D – on the Nov. 6 statewide ballot.
If passed, the state’s gas tax would increase 2.5 cents per year over the next four years, bringing the total tax to 27 cents after July 1, 2022.
A complicated equation
Today, finding the money to fix crumbling roads and tottering bridges and building new ones has become a complicated issue with many players involved.
Transportation funding is not just about making sure an old bridge doesn’t collapse and fall into the river; it’s also about supporting current and future economic development and weaving highways and bridges into a “multi-modal” transportation system that calls for integrating highway traffic with ports and railroads.
Likewise, what voters will face in the voting booth is complicated.
Proposition D specifically states that it is going to fund the Missouri Highway Patrol and hints at transportation improvements but doesn’t mention MoDOT. It also includes some goodies that aren’t related to transportation or public safety at all. Legislative rules prompted the fuel tax to be piggy-backed with legislation that would be passed to avoid new bills being written.
The exact ballot language states: “Shall Missouri law be amended to fund Missouri state law enforcement by increasing the motor fuel tax by two and a half cents per gallon annually for four years beginning July 1, 2019, exempt Special Olympic, Paralympic and Olympic prizes from state taxes, and to establish the Emergency State Freight Bottleneck fund.”
The fiscal summary for the ballot measure states: “If passed, this measure will generate $288 million annually to the State Road Fund to provide funding for Missouri state law enforcement and $123 million annually to local governments for road construction on maintenance.”
Scott Charton, a spokesperson for SaferMO.com, a group supporting the proposition, said lawmakers had to work with state constitutional requirements that state fuel-tax increases only can be used to pay for the cost of collecting the revenue, local and state roads and bridges, and the actual Highway Patrol costs of enforcing Missouri’s laws on state highways.
Charton said the proposition’s passage means that the new fuel tax revenue will go the Highway Patrol, freeing up money appropriated by the General Assembly to the Highway Patrol to be used for road construction and maintenance.
Prop D and the average driver
For every 2.5 cents increase in the motor fuel tax, the average driver will spend an additional $1.28 per month, according to Charton. In four years, when the tax reaches 10 cents, that cost will be $5.10 per month.
Rep. Jean Evans [R-District 99] said Prop D “puts in statute a priority to fund the Highway Patrol; no one can come along elected or unelected bureaucrat and start cutting their funding.”
“I think we really need to make people understand that this is for law enforcement as well [as infrastructure],” said State Rep. Kathie Conway [R-District 104]. “We are losing highway patrolman to [police departments in] St. Louis County, probably to St. Charles County, Kansas City because they pay more.”
However, the lion’s share of attention on Proposition D centers on addressing the “deferred maintenance” that has been in effect for decades in Missouri. The state has the seventh largest transportation system in the country but is 46th in the nation in revenue spent per mile. In addition to major highways, MoDOT maintains county roads, designated by letters.
Patrick McKenna, director of MoDOT, and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann don’t use the phrase gas tax.
“It’s a user fee,” Ehlmann said.
One of the reasons that America has been able to build its road system is that it charged for the use of it, McKenna said. “The more you drive the more you pay. The tax doesn’t scale to the side of the economy the way other general taxes do like income taxes and sale tax. They grow as the economy grows, as the population grows. The gas tax doesn’t, it’s purely based at present on the number of gallons purchased.”
What has happened since the 1990s is that the rate of inflation has caused the state to lose purchasing power, McKenna said. Costs continue to rise while revenue remains flat. MoDOT has probably lost $50 to $60 million in purchasing power, which isn’t critical for one year but starts to stack up over decades, he said.
Voter passage of Proposition D won’t fix everything. MoDOT has estimated that its transportation needs annually hit as high as $825 million. But it could restore the purchasing power that the state fuel tax had in the 1990s and is a “reasonable approach” that doesn’t overwhelm the agency with too much work, McKenna said.
“It puts us in a position to trend in the right direction, we have been trending in the wrong direction for over 30 years,” he said.
If the state can’t do everything, then what are its priorities? The state maintains more than 10,000 bridges. Of those, 922 are rated “poor” by federal officials. The average age of state bridges is more than 40 years old; most are designed to last 50 years.
As an example of the challenges faced statewide, McKenna noted that a 16-mile section of I-270 from the Chain of Rocks Bridge to the I-70 interchange has 16 interchanges that are in bad shape. “We have nets under those interchanges to keep the pieces of concrete that are failing from hitting vehicles,” McKenna said.
New money also may put the state in the position to provide matching funds to obtain federal highway funding that, in turn, could pick up the costs of as much as 80 percent of major highway and bridge projects. The Trump administration has signaled that it would cut regulations to provide federal money but the local cost share may rise, local officials have said.
Extra money also may allow MoDOT to change some of its austerity measures. “Right now, starting at winter, I’m upward of 900 people short to plow snow this year,” McKenna said. In past year, the state has used supervisory personnel to plow snow.
Prop D and local cities
It’s not just a potential pile of money for major road projects that has people looking toward Proposition D, it’s also the local money that will come the way of cities and counties.
Cities and counties would divide up $123 million a year in new revenue from the motor fuel tax if Proposition D is approved. Funds would be distributed based on population with West St. Louis County government receiving a little more than $6 million and St. Charles County more than $2 million.
In West St. Louis County, Ballwin would receive $478,227; Chesterfield, $746,880 and Wildwood, $558,651. In St. Charles County, O’Fallon [the county’s largest city] would receive $1.24 million; St. Peters, $826,957; and Lake Saint Louis, $228,700. That funding is restricted for transportation use only.
Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, which represents many St. Louis County municipalities, said he expects a flurry of activity by local municipalities if voters approve Proposition D.
“It’s going to make transportation and the quality of the roadways throughout the region that much better,” Kelly said. “You’re always looking to be able to do more.” Kelly was mayor of Brentwood for 22 years. “This is going to allow everyone to do that.”
Conway said the money will help cities and counties make their own decisions.
“[Residents] see their aldermen out there mowing the grass and they … [ask], ‘Are we ever going to get that stoplight put up at the intersection of Main and First streets?’” Conway said. Proposition D money could give local government the resources to take care of those types of issues.
“It’s more local control and I always think that’s a good thing because those people know best what they need,” said Conway, whose district includes part of St. Peters. “We’ll take care of the main interstates but this is going to give the locals more control. I think that’s important.”
Dardenne Prairie Mayor David Zucker said the $180,790 more the city may get isn’t an insubstantial amount of money. “It’s a significant repair project or sidewalk installation,” Zucker. Dardenne Prairie, in western St. Charles County, continues to grow. “It would have an impact for sure.”
St. Charles County and its municipalities have tapped into their own funding to help MoDOT in recent years. The county used money from its half-cent transportation sales tax to complete the final phase of the Route 364/Page Avenue extension, conduct Route N and I-70 corridor studies, and replace the Daniel Boone Bridge across the Missouri River as well as other projects. County officials are hoping that its half-cent transportation sales tax could be moved to other projects if voters approve Proposition D.
Ehlmann said the Missouri Highway Commission has supported maintaining the existing road and transportation system, which is fine with much of Missouri because it’s not growing. He’s hoping MoDOT will become more assertive.
McKenna said state and local officials will work through their local planning groups, such as the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, to establish priority projects.
“As long as you maintain the system there is no pain for the half of the state that isn’t growing,” Ehlmann said. “But there is a lot of pain for us [St. Charles County] because we’re growing by 5,000 to 6,000 people a year. We don’t need to just maintain the system we need to grow it and make it better.”
Officials say growth and road improvements also are needed because of the increasing importance of I-70 and other interstates in moving freight, which may spur economic development and add jobs.
St. Charles County officials particularly want action in fixing a traffic bottleneck in Wentzville where a railroad bridge has limited I-70 to four lanes. It’s one of several area traffic bottlenecks that might discourage companies that need the quick shipment of freight from locating in the St. Louis region.
[Editor’s note: For more about the freight issue, visit midriversnewsmagazine.com.]
Passage of Proposition D may be able to help with that, but can it pass?
Charton notes widespread support already from transportation groups, the Missouri Municipal League, and the Missouri Association of Counties that represent local governments, the two U.S. senators and Gov. Mike Parsons.
The league and association didn’t support the sale tax measure in 2014, Charton said. A survey of voters in May suggested that a large majority of state voters [57 percent] favor passing Proposition D.
Evans, whose district includes Manchester, said it scares her to think what money the state might have for transportation if the Proposition D fails. “Our budget is increasingly taken up by the demands of health care and education. I don’t think people are in favor of cutting.”
If Proposition D passes, there still may be demands to increase funding in the future. It could be an ongoing debate.
“I hope it is because that means the region is growing,” Ehlmann said.