The head of the Missouri Department of Transportation says the state faces significant highway funding shortfalls in the years ahead but said a $5.4 billion tax issue on the ballot next Tuesday would help.
“It’s not the cure-all for everything, but it helps a lot,” MoDOT Director Dave Nichols said Tuesday at a forum held by the Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit chambers of commerce.
Voters will decide on Amendment 7, a three-fourths cent state sales tax for transportation. It would last 10 years, and it would mean no increase in the gas tax and no toll roads for those 10 years. Most of the money would be for road-and-bridge work – including rebuilding and widening Interstate 70 to six lanes statewide – but also would direct money to mass transit work and elsewhere.
“Missouri is one of the few states in the country that doesn’t have dedicated funds for all modes of transportation,” Nichols said.
State funding for roadwork has been falling for years, and Nichols said without added funds the state will be in danger of not matching federal funding within three or four years, meaning the state would lose money from Washington.
“We have never lost federal funds – never – at the highway level,” he said.
Nichols said drivers understandably get concerned about all the trucks on I-70, but he responded with this: “That’s commerce moving, and that’s what keeps our economy moving forward in our state. The problem is we’re not keeping up.”
If the tax goes into effect, work to widen I-70 would begin in earnest in 2016. He said the state would give contractors incentives to get it done quickly.
“It’ll be at most five years,” he said.
But Nichols also painted a stark picture of MoDOT’s current finances. The last increase in the state’s fuel tax was approved by the General Assembly in 1992 – two-cent bumps in 1992, 1994 and 1996 – putting it at the current 17 cents a gallon. That doesn’t change with inflation or the price of gas, so that 17 cents doesn’t go as far toward concrete and other costs as it did in the early 1990s.
“That purchasing power is about half,” Nichols said.
And less fuel is being used.
“Missourians – it’s really a national thing – we’re not driving as much as we used to,” Nichols said.
MoDOT did get a boost of construction money from about 2005 through 2010 in two forms. Voters directed money toward bonds – but now those have to be paid off – and the federal government provided economic stimulus money in response to the recession.
Over those years, MoDOT was spending $1.3 billion a year on construction and maintenance. But those sources of funds have gone away, and MoDOT highway spending is down to $700 million a year now and scheduled to fall to $325 million within two years. MoDOT says just maintaining current roads and bridges costs $485 million.
“Yet in two years we’re going to be at $325 million, so I want you to know this is something we can’t just keep kicking down the road,” Nichols said. “The time to act is now.”
MoDOT also is looking at federal funding headaches. In addition to the state’s gas tax of 17 cents, there’s a federal tax of 18.4 cents, and Nichols said overall the share paid by Missourians comes back to the state. Washington picks up 80 percent of the cost of many projects.
But Washington is burning through the federal highway trust fund, again in large part because people are driving less.
“So the highway trust fund is actually going bankrupt,” Nichols said. Congress, headed to recess after this week, is working on a fix to keep the funding going to states through next May, or else Missouri and others will have to curtail letting bids, Nichols said.
The Senate on Tuesday approved a short-term highway funding bill that would keep money flowing to the states until mid-December. That measure, which passed 79-18, now goes back to the House.
“So we’re watching very closely. ... Hopefully they’ll get it fixed this week,” he said.
The state has to match federal funding, and that’s a longer-term worry, that the state wouldn’t have enough to draw down all the federal money it’s allowed, possibly as soon as 2017 or 2018.
Transportation officials, legislators and others during the last few years have discussed other ideas, too. Toll roads were met with stiff opposition a couple of years ago. Legislators had looked at the gas tax but were wary because of, among other things, the decline in driving.
Also, Nichols said, any increase in the gas tax to get goods to market would ultimately come back in the form of prices.
“At the end of the day, the consumer’s going to pick up the cost of this,” Nichols said.
Nichols also stressed safety. He used this illustration: The two Malaysian Airlines incidents this year have taken the lives of about 600 people and gotten constant, worldwide attention. Last year, 757 people died on Missouri highways – the lowest since the 1940s but still a concern, Nichols said.
“That concerns me very, very much because I’m an advocate for safety,” he said.
One improvement would be shoulders on about 750 miles of rural roads that tend to be narrow and shoulderless, so a driver whose one tire goes off the road for a second tends to overreact and overcorrect, headed back across the road.
“And we see too much of it,” he said.
Overall, the state has listed about 815 projects statewide that the $540 million a year would pay for. Roughly one-tenth would go for I-70. Others in the metro area include:
• Replacing the Broadway Bridge, which carries U.S. 169 over the Missouri River in Kansas City.
“The Broadway Bridge needs to be replaced,” Nichols said.
• Replacing the bridges that carry Interstate 435 over I-70 near the stadiums. Left-hand exits would be eliminated, and I-435 would flow through that intersection with six lanes all the way.
• Adding “auxiliary lanes” – the shoulder, in other words – on I-70 at five bridges. Each bridge – Pittman Road, Blue Ridge Boulevard, Crysler Avenue, the Union Pacific Railroad line and Phelps Road – would be replaced by a longer one, allowing the space for the added lanes.