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Tolling Points

Missouri Sees the Cost of Inaction on Transportation Funding

By: 
Bill Cramer

Election year jitters may have been the underlying cause earlier this month when the Missouri General Assembly failed to take up a bill that would have allowed citizens to decide on a desperately-needed, $236-million financial infusion to state and local transportation.

It’s a worrying sign for the Show-Me State, where the last piece of transportation funding legislation passed in 2004, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Department of Transportation (MoDOT) has seen its budget decline by about $700 million, from nearly $1.4 billion in 2009.

The state came close to reversing the trend, but it wasn’t to be. “The Senate passed a bill in March that would have given voters the chance to decide on a 5.9 cent-per-gallon fuel tax hike,” the Herald-Whig in Quincy, IL reports. “If approved in November, the tax could have generated about $165 million for the Missouri Department of Transportation to spend on roads, bridges, and other transportation projects. Another $71 million would have gone to local units of government.”

But “House leadership never called the bill for a vote, leaving the state with a continuing transportation funding crisis,” the paper notes.

"Everybody knows you've got to have good infrastructure to have a good economy. If we don't do something on our bridges and roads, it will just begin a downward spiral," said Rep. Craig Redmon (R-Canton), who said the House majority whip never brought the bill to the floor because it didn’t have enough votes to pass.

A Tough Situation Gets Worse

So what happens when you accumulate a 12-year gap in transportation funding legislation and gradually let half of your highway budget disappear?

The results aren’t pretty.

“MoDOT has dealt with the loss of funds by reducing staff by 1,200 positions, selling 124 pieces of property and 750 pieces of equipment,” the Herald-Whig reports. “Even with the savings, annual appropriations have fallen far short of maintenance needs.”

That doesn’t sit well with New London, MO attorney John Briscoe, who joined the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission late last year. "We're using bandages to patch things instead of fully repairing them," he said. Briscoe has expressed strong support for some overdue bridge upgrades, as well as an expressway project through Hannibal.

But it’s little wonder that the ASCE gave Missouri’s roads a mediocre C grade and its bridges a C- in its latest Report Card for America’s Infrastructure in 2013. The state has 339 bridges that are functionally obsolete, and it’s been far too long since the 2004 funding bill “allowed for 2,200 miles of the state’s busiest highways to be smoother and safer, sped up 55 critical highway projects, and allowed $1.6 billion in new construction.”

The Election Year Debate We’d Like to See

Redmon said he hoped to see a solution to the state’s transportation funding crisis next year. “You can't cut your way to prosperity, and you can't spend your way to prosperity, either. You've got to have some sensible cuts and some sensible increases,” he said.

But while the state is considering a program to share costs with municipalities, Briscoe is concerned about smaller, rural counties that wouldn’t be able to afford their 20% share of some of the larger projects that are needed.

All of which points to a state highway funding debate in which legislators are having trouble weighing the cost of highway repairs and improvements against the far higher cost of not getting them done. There’s a lot to be said for fiscal discretion, and cost-sharing is a great way to keep local priorities at the forefront in state funding programs. But when a state DOT director like Missouri’s Patrick McKenna describes highway congestion as “appalling”, but elected officials feel they don’t have a mandate to solve the problem, it explains how a proud, self-reliant state like Missouri can become a poster child for the nation’s highway funding crisis.

With renewed emphasis on state tolling pilot projects under the federal FAST Act, there’s an important, bipartisan conversation for Missouri voters to have as state elections approach. They’re living the day-to-day reality that our roads are never paid for, that it’s always the right time (and usually an urgent time) to invest in highway maintenance and bridge repairs. If the community starts to speak up about the cost of deteriorating roads and rusting bridges, legislators may be more comfortable exploring the mix of funding solutions available to them.

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