Here’s the truest statement in the 84-page report issued Tuesday by the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force:
“Over the past decade, there has been much discussion yet little resolution about how best to address Missouri’s changing and expanding transportation needs.”
That has a cost. Business leaders told the task force of their concerns that “unaddressed transportation-infrastructure needs will threaten economic growth for the state,” the report says.
The Missouri General Assembly convenes today for the 2018 regular session that runs through mid-May. This report highlights issues that should be high on legislators’ agendas, but as yet there’s not much to suggest that will be the case.
The task force has several suggestions, mainly a 10-cent increase in the state’s gas tax. The math is straightforward. The 17-cent-a-gallon tax hasn’t been changed in 22 years, and in that time inflation has eaten away more than half of the purchasing power of that 17 cents. An increase of a dime would make up for what’s been lost to inflation – but still only cover half of the state’s $825 million in annual unfunded transportation needs.
That would be a start, but it will only work if elected leaders get behind it and communicate to voters that this would be part of a sustainable long-range plan. We don’t need a repeat of 2014, when legislators put to the voters a three-eighths-cent sales tax for transportation, a deeply flawed idea that no one liked and few campaigned for. It failed, and legislators have used that as an excuse for inaction since then.
The next part of that conversation is that Missouri, like other states, needs to rethink how it pays for roads and bridges. Cars are using less gas, and some run without any, so the gas tax as a long-term proposition is shaky. But we still need roads. The task force makes no concrete recommendations but suggests all sorts of things: higher fees for electric vehicles, indexing the fuel tax to inflation, tolling for bridges, fees based on miles driven rather than gas burned, and even changing vehicle registration fees that are based on horsepower. We’re the only state that does that. It might have made sense when initiated this approach at a time when horsepower correlated to fuel use. However, that was 1910. Technology has changed.
Other known problems come up. Interstate 70 and other interstates need to be rebuilt. “Improvements are long overdue, and we can no longer put them off,” the report says. Also: the Buck O’Neil Bridge in Kansas City and the I-70 bridge over the Missouri River near Rocheport both need to be replaced. It’s a growing list.
The task force also noted with concern that driver behavior is a significant factor in highway deaths and suggests banning texting while driving, a seat belt requirement with teeth, and graduated drivers licenses for young people. All good ideas. But there’s been no traction in the Legislature.
The group did seem to rule out one hare-brained idea, giving lettered highways to the counties to maintain. Not only would that be a significant unfunded mandate from state to local government – the kind of thing Jefferson City barks about when Washington does it to the states – but counties just aren’t geared up for that scale of work. Despite the potential immediate savings, it’s probably more efficient in the long run to leave things as they are, the group concluded.
It easy to say every legislator – heck, all of us – should read all 84 pages, but there’s nothing substantial here that’s new. These are known issues, including this statement: “A strong correlation exists between good infrastructure and a state’s economy.” States that spend what it takes to stay in the game add more jobs and enjoy faster overall growth.
Specifically, Missouri is “poised … to be a leader is travel, logistics, freight distribution” if it chooses the right policies and investments.
The question is whether elected leaders have the will to take on a tough and complicated issue and engage in a realistic conversation with the taxpayers.
Ernie Goss, director of Creighton University’s Economic Forecasting Group, says the Midwest economy should continue doing well in the coming months.
“All I can say is the economy’s a lot warmer than the weather,” he says in a video posted with the Creighton group’s monthly update, based on surveys of purchasing managers a manufacturing companies.
Creighton looks at Missouri and eight other states, from the Dakotas to Arkansas. Those surveys cover new orders, inventories and other factors, and Creighton uses those data to generate ratings for the Midwest and for each state.
The nine states as a whole in December came in at 59, up from 57.2 in November, the 13th straight month of 50 or better. This is on a 100-point scale, and any reading above 50 suggests growth in the next few months. Missouri slipped a bit to 55.3.
“I look for an expanding regional economy, expanding U.S. economy for the next to three to six months certainly,” Goss said.
Jobs have grown 1.4 percent over the last year in those nine states, and wages have grown 2.4 percent. Goss adds that labor shortages have become common and says upward wage pressures could push the Federal Reserve to keep raising interest rates.
“When you get these shortages of labor, it tends to push up cost,” he said.
Goss is among those economists who for years have wrung their hands over the imminent return of more than nominal inflation – though it hasn’t happened even though we’re several years past the Great Recession. Still, Goss sees inflation and the potential collapse of talks to rework NAFTA is the biggest risks ahead.
“Inflation, inflation, inflation,” he said. “That’s just something we’ve got to keep an eye on.”
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s business reporter and editor. Reach him at 816-350-6313 or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @FoxEJC.