If Missourians back a transportation sales tax next month, road workers can expect a busy decade.
That's a key takeaway of a St. Louis Public Radio analysis of a project list approved by the state's Highways and Transportation Commission. It's what will be funded if voters approve a 0.75 percent sales tax increase on Aug. 5.
Of the roughly $4.8 billion worth of projects approved by the commission, more than 82 percent of that money would go toward road, highway and bridge construction. That includes about $500 million across the state to help widen Interstate 70 and roughly $350 million to overhaul Interstate 270. It also includes improvements to scores of roads in rural Missouri -- and in places like Jefferson and Franklin counties.
And when it comes to the roughly $1.6 billion that would go to four St. Louis-area counties and St. Louis in the next decade, about 81 percent of the funds would go for road-related projects. That’s because the vast majority of projects in St. Louis County, Franklin County, Jefferson County and St. Charles County are aimed at bolstering roads and highways.
"There’s a large amount, a significant amount, of highway and bridge projects, because we heard from Missourians that they want to make sure that we’re taking care of the transportation system we have in our state," said Missouri Department of Transportation director Dave Nichols. "And you can see on our statewide list that there’s a large emphasis on repairing roads and bridges, putting shoulders on roadways – especially in the rural areas – where we have two-lane roads."
Still, Nichols and MoDOT's St. Louis chief engineer Greg Horn said passage of Amendment 7 would mark something of a paradigm shift. That's because some money would go to mass transit, rail and bike trails. St. Louis' project list includes projects aimed at improving sidewalks, bike trails and mass transit.
"It’s really exciting, because it’s the first time we’ve been able to spend money on things like transit and ports and aviation," Horn said. "Most of our money hadn’t gone there before."
We did some number crunching of the statewide and St. Louis area list. And we also got some reaction to the list both before and after the commission gave its approval. (The story continues with the reaction after the graphic.)
Here’s what we found:
'Where is the improved public transportation?'
Critics of the proposal aren't impressed. Among other things, they said the list is too oriented toward roads and bridges — and that mass transit projects should have been a higher priority.
Thomas Shrout, the treasurer of Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, said the list "does not address what Missouri is going to be like 10 years from now." Rather, he said, "it addresses what it was like 20 years ago."
"There’s nothing on there that would ensure an expansion of MetroLink over the next 10 years. And to me, that’s a huge problem. There’s nothing in there (about) an expansion of passenger rail between Kansas City and St. Louis over the next 10 years. That’s a problem," Shrout said. "When somebody says ‘we’re going to resurface xyz road,’ I mean I have trouble getting excited about that. I’m sure the vast majority of the public has trouble with that."
Shortly after St. Louis regional leaders submitted their initial transportation tax project lists, St. Louis Public Radio put out a Public Insight Network query to get a sense of public preferences.
Most of the responses expressed dismay that the projects weren’t more oriented toward mass transit. For instance, Clayton resident Chip Casteel, who has had a long career in public policy, said he’ll vote for the transportation tax. But he added, “There is a noticeable lack of emphasis on public transportation."
Cindy Baker of St. Charles echoed that sentiment. She said the "road projects are fine, but where is the improved public transportation?”
“If there was more public transit, there would be less need to spend obscene amounts of money on highways,” said Baker, who added she is undecided about the tax. “Now is the time to improve transit. Nationwide, people are proving they are willing and ready to use public transportation. Comparatively, you can accomplish so much more mobility by enhancing public transportation options.”
For her part, Lisa Cagle was heartened by the amount of “Complete Streets” projects in the city. She said they “would positively impact me as I regularly ride my bike and use public transportation to commute and to get around the area.”
“Many roads need repairs just so cyclists can use them safely,” Cagle said. “In the city, I'm thinking for example of large stretches of Compton — currently an important North-South alternative to busier car-heavy streets like Jefferson or Grand.”
While Cagle said the state spends too much on “interstates and highways,” she added the proposal signals that “Missouri has recognized that public transit is an important aspect of transportation across the whole state, in rural and especially in urban areas.”
“I hope this represents a new direction for state funding on transit in Missouri," Cagle said.
During the public comment period that last through early July, Nichols said his agency heard from people representing both sides of the spectrum. Rural Missourians, he said, tended to emphasize a need for more road and bridge repair. Public transportation was a priority in urban parts of the state.
"There is a very good blend here. And obviously, there’s always a debate about if there should be more of a focus than we have," Nichols said. "And the irony of it is that with the existing funding that MoDOT gets today through fuel tax and license fees and those items that we can’t use those funds for anything but roads and bridges. And so here is an opportunity where that transformational shift in how we talk about transportation in Missouri is taking place."
'All about votes'
Still, several respondents said the project list wasn’t enticing enough to vote for the sales tax increase.
Les Sterman, the former executive director of East-West Gateway who is working against Amendment 7, said a relatively small percentage of the projects would actually improve road safety. He says that runs counter to proponents' rhetoric on why the tax is needed.
"It would be a stretch to say those huge projects are about safety," said Sterman when asked if some of the larger projects could improve safety. "They’re really about capacity expansion more than anything else. You hear the proponents talk about crumbling and unsafe bridges. In fact, there aren’t any unsafe bridges in Missouri. Because if there were, MoDOT would close them."
Sterman said that some projects — including money for a St. Louis streetcar and the I-70 expansion — require other sources of money to happen. And he said some of the projects were suggested not because they were crucial but because they would get votes.
"This list was designed primarily for one purpose. And that’s to attract votes," Sterman said. "When you hear the rhetoric on this, it’s exactly as you described. It’s don’t worry about the funding source. It’s worth it. Let’s focus on the projects that you’re going to get."
Ferguson resident Nick Kasoff said the projects in questions shouldn’t be funded with a sales tax.
“The important question is, why are we proposing a large, regressive tax increase to fund the continued expansion of an unsustainable road system?” Kasoff said. “Roads should be paid for by motorists, through gasoline taxes. That sets up the right incentives by giving drivers a more accurate idea of the cost of driving. This won't happen if we hide road costs in sales taxes.”
Florissant resident Kay Satke said she is “a true St. Louisan because I complain about the traffic, but I wouldn't change a thing.”
“Instead of building new interchanges, I would prefer a few years of simply maintaining our current infrastructure,” Satke said. “The Highway 40 update was great. I drive it every day, but it's not worth ignoring bridges and roads that need basic maintenance. There are hundreds of small projects that would make driving smoother and safer, we don't need billion dollar projects right now.”
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This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.