Currently, Missouri has one of the nation’s lowest per-gallon diesel and gasoline tax rates. While this is popular with motorists, it can be a problem for our transportation department because these funds are needed to help build and repair roads in our state. With the lower tax rates and cars being more fuel efficient, there is a significant reduction in tax monies available to MoDot for road construction. MoDot has estimated that it will need at least $485 – to $500 million annually just to keep the state’s roads and bridges in good repair. This does not account for any new construction projects. There is no question that we must find a new revenue source to help fund road maintenance and construction.
Missouri’s highway system is one of the largest in the nation, considering the size of our state. According to last year’s infrastructure “Report Card” for Missouri, we have almost 132,000 miles of public roads, of which over 11,800 miles are considered major roads. It is reported that 10% of these major roads are in poor condition. Our state also boasts over 24,000 bridges, of which over 6,633 (27%) are either considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
The Ninety-Seventh General Assembly tried to deal with transportation funding in the 2013 and again in the 2014 Session. In the 2013 Session there was a referendum to increase sales tax by one cent to fund roads. This passed the Missouri House but failed in the Senate. Then in 2014, both chambers were able to pass a funding referendum by lowering the proposed tax to ¾ of one cent. Constitutional Amendment #7 (the proposed increase in sales tax to fund transportation) went before voters in the August 2014 Primary Election, only to be defeated by a 60% majority. Consequently, as we begin 2015, this issue is still very much in the forefront and still needs to be dealt with.
This past week Missouri Governor Jay Nixon finally weighed in on funding for MoDot. Previously, the governor had opposed Amendment #7. However, he never offered a suggestion to the problem until this week. Now he has requested that the Missouri State Highway and Transportation Commission provide him with an analysis on making I-70 a toll road, and he wants this report by the end of this year. This will be extremely difficult to do with only three weeks remaining in 2014.
It is estimated that it will cost $1.5 billion to rebuild I-70 between St. Louis and Kansas City. The I-70 corridor is probably Missouri’s most pressing transportation infrastructure need because it is the heaviest traveled road in the state. Approximately 60% of our state’s population lives either 30 miles north or 30 miles south of the Interstate as it crosses Missouri. The newest part of I-70 is now over 50 years old. Besides needing repairs and updating, studies show that it would be beneficial to enlarge this major roadway from four lanes up to six lanes. The $1.5 billion price tag includes the expansion.
Most legislators, while happy to see the governor addressing this issue, question making any of our state’s highways into toll roads. The idea of toll roads in Missouri has been polled numerous times and has always been considered only as a last resort. This idea remains very unpopular with legislators and other people of our state. Furthermore, there is even a question as to whether it is constitutionally legal in Missouri, and because of this legal uncertainty the issue of toll roads might very well have to be approved by a vote of the people.
As we move forward with proposals for funding transportation in Missouri, we need to be open minded and look at the various ways available to us—especially when it comes to funding for I–70. Whether it is an increase in sales tax, or an increase in fuel tax, or the possibility of a toll road, all these options need to be seriously studied and considered. Our driver’s safety is too great an issue to not meet this need head on.