Current revenues remain well below what’s needed to maintain Missouri’s 34,000 miles of roads and more than 10,000 bridges, officials were told Wednesday.
“This is solvable. … It takes action and political will to do so,” Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, told the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force. It’s holding meetings around the state and was in Kansas City on Wednesday.
“We have a core set of funding that has not kept pace with inflation for the last 20-plus years,” McKenna said, adding that Missouri’s spending on roads and bridges is, per mile, less than one-fourth of the national average. Missouri has the nation’s seventh-largest road system but is 47th in funding per mile.
The General Assembly, which for years has discussed but not moved forward on transportation issues, this spring called for the task force. Any recommendations would go to the General Assembly when it meets next January.
One task force member, state Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Cottleville, all but ruled out tolls or higher taxes.
“This is not a money problem,” he said.
He said it’s irresponsible to discuss taxes or tolls without first discussing reducing the size of the network, that is, abandoning some roads and turning them over to local governments.
That got a sharp response from Steve Miller, who was chair of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission until 2016. He said that move would not be legal or practical.
“It may be good politics,” Miller said. “It is not practical or reasonable care of the system.”
Miller and McKenna said officials in recent years in have looked at every possible option. MoDOT cut 1,200 employees – one-fifth of its workforce – in 2011, sold off equipment and closed three regional offices, with great impact on local communities, putting the freed-up money into construction. Getting MoDOT to do more with less just won’t work, they said.
“That is good for politics but is not the reality,” Miller said.
Miller also said the federal government can’t be counted on for any significant solution, and he ruled out borrowing more. Missouri voters approved borrowing money more than a decade ago, leading to a burst of construction, but that money is gone, and now retiring the bonds costs $300 million a year.
He called on the task force to do “more than wring our hands about the issue of funding.” He said specific plans and a commitment to follow through are needed.
State and federal gas taxes pay for most highway funding in Missouri. Missouri user fees, including the gas tax, raise $1.54 billion a year, and the federal government provides another $911 million. Only $18 million in Missouri general revenue is added to that.
“Many people believe that general taxation pays for transportation in Missouri. That is not the case,” McKenna said.
That total of $2.47 billion goes to cities and counties, to agencies such as the Missouri State Highway Patrol and for such things as debt service. That leaves about $600 million a year for maintenance.
MoDOT says it has more than $800 million in unfunded annual needs, some of them being projects that would improve the state’s economy.
Part of the issue, officials said, is that Missouri has the fourth lowest gas tax in the country and hasn’t raised it in more than 20 years.
If the gas tax and other fees had just kept up with inflation over the last 20 years, the state would have $500 million more a year.
“That would go a long way in addressing those unmet needs,” McKenna said.
One expert suggested different funding sources and said Missouri and other states face problems in relying on gas taxes. Cars are more efficient and using less gas.
Ananth Prasad, former Florida director of transportation, said half of the drivers on Missouri’s interstates are from out of state and said that alone calls the gas tax into question.
“There’s really not a silver bullet when it comes to funding,” he said.
He made the case for tolls on rural interstates but stressed they are effective for specific projects and for reducing congestion, not solving any state’s overall funding problem. He estimated that nationwide about 75 percent of new construction is paid for through tolling, and he said people will support the idea if the plans are laid out well.
“They want to see clear benefits,” he said.
He put the cost of rebuilding Interstate 70, parts of which are roughly 60 years old, at $2.4 billion. MoDOT says its age and condition mean it needs to be rebuilt down to the roadbed, not just a few inches of new asphalt on top. Tolling I-70 from the eastern edge of the Kansas City area to the edge of St. Louis has been floated from time to time but gone nowhere.